José Andrés Has Some Things To Get Off His Chest As World Central Kitchen Prepares For A Brutal Ukraine Winter

cJosé Andrés takes out his iPhone to switch between two images of Ukraine. One, a video, shows a crowd of people making hot soup in a tent with their international food aid group, World Central Kitchen. The other image is a tent emblazoned with the UNICEF logo. It’s dark and empty.

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In that United Nations tent, there was nothing but “af—ing QR code,” Andrés says Forbes during an interview at his recently opened Zaytinya restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District. World Central Kitchen, which travels the world to provide meals to people devastated by war and natural disasters, has never devoted so many resources to one place as Ukraine. The organization has more than 4,000 cooks and volunteers there, and Andres himself has spent more than 80 days in Ukraine since Russia began its unprovoked invasion more than eight months ago. Now that the temperatures are dropping and there aren’t enough people and places handing out hot soup, Andrés worries that World Central Kitchen is all alone.

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“Where were the people? Where were the people?” Andres says from the UN tent, his voice almost a whimper. “This is an open wound. Where’s the money going?”

This is brutal of Andrés, who is among the most visible global humanitarians. He promises that World Central Kitchen will feed hungry Ukrainians at least until spring, but that is not the organization’s mission. It is supposed to distribute meals in an emergency, not spend more than a year in a war zone because millions of hungry Ukrainians have nowhere else to go.

Tension is clearly something Andrés, 53, has been struggling with. “We’ve been massive and swift in our response,” he says. “It’s a fair question: where were they? And why does it take so long to get on the machine?”

UNICEF declined to comment on allegations of inaction.

World Central Kitchen’s Ukrainian effort has been funded with $10 million of the $100 million prize Andres received from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The rest, or what Andres promises is “99.99%”, has been paid for with small donations from foundations and interested individuals.

So far this year, the organization has delivered 175 million meals to Ukraine from more than 8,100 distribution points reaching more than 1,100 cities and towns there. In total, worldwide, World Central Kitchen served 250 million meals by 2022.

Russia has been stockpiling food almost since the war began on February 24. In its early hours, a ship carrying grain for Cargill was hit, and in June a Russian missile destroyed a train carrying supplies for World Central Kitchen. According to the Ukrainian government, the Russians have fired on silos and railways moving grain, and Russian fighters have stolen up to 500,000 tons of grain from the occupied areas and tried to sell it on the international market.

Russian ships have also blockaded the Black Sea, where 30 percent of the world’s exported grain is transported each year, trapping some 20 million tons in Ukrainian silos and warehouses. This drove up already high prices and reduced the available supply in countries in North Africa and the Middle East where millions are starving. International negotiations have made progress towards opening up shipping, but agreements remain shaky.

Since August, almost all of the food World Central Kitchen has distributed comes from a network of Ukrainian farmers and producers. This gives survivors “a sense of dignity and hope and the strength to carry on in a very difficult situation,” says Abiola Afolayan, a former UN official who is now Bread For The World’s international policy adviser.

As Ukrainians prepare for a long winter, they no doubt remember their own famine, called the Holodomor, which killed millions in 1932-1933. They say the Soviets orchestrated widespread deaths by rationing the amount of food grown in Ukraine that they stayed in Ukraine, while at the same time exporting it to other countries.

Andrés recognized almost immediately how terrible war could become. When news of the Russian attack broke in February, he left Miami to fly to Ukraine without even pausing to grab a winter coat. They mailed him a jacket when he extended his stay.

“Ukrainians are used to the cold, but they are used to the cold and winter with electricity,” says Andres. “The war is still going on in places where we can help, and this winter for us is an emergency.”

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