"It is important to feed people in need, but it is also vital to be building up resilience against future disasters," says chef and activist José Andrés.

By Betsy Andrews
February 26, 2019
Eating at El Barretal - Photo by Betsy Andrews

The best puerco en chile verde I have ever tasted was at a government-run shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. Housed in a defunct outdoor nightclub called El Barretal, the “shelter” was a ragtag collection of tents pitched in a concrete courtyard, with makeshift outdoor showers, and sanitation woes due to recent rains. At its height, thousands of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, many of them women and children, were living inside. Having fled gang violence and other dire circumstances, they had traveled en masse, mainly by foot, more than 3,000 miles to this city on the United States’ southern border, hoping to exercise their legal right to cross over and claim asylum.

By late January, many migrants had moved on. A few went to the States, some to smaller shelters or rented rooms, and some even back home, as their chances of receiving refugee status in Donald Trump’s America proved slim. Only 200 or so remained at El Barretal. Multiple entities—Mexican Marines, policías federales y municipales, and an orange-shirted wing of immigration control called Grupos Beta—were overseeing the shelter’s entrance, allowing no food in. Instead, volunteers for chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen ladled that pork, along with garlicky, tomato-reddened rice and fresh salad, into cardboard boats and served it with wooden utensils outside the gate beneath portable lights we had brought with us. People lined up to receive dinner with a murmured “gracias.”

Puerco en Chile Verde - Photo by Betsy Andrews

The meal was part of an effort that marked yet another expansion of a mission that has garnered the D.C.-based Andrés a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. For me and other volunteers, it simply felt like a human imperative. Dana Booth, an Oregon winemaker, has been delivering food for World Central Kitchen twice a day since December when he rode his bicycle down the coast from Eugene. “I’ve made some really good connections with a lot of people in the camps,” he told me. “It makes me want to stick around, see it through, and make sure people get cared for and in a better place before I leave.”

That sums up Andrés’ impetus. Founded in 2010 following the chef’s experiences distributing clean-burning cookstoves in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, World Central Kitchen (WCK) brings a food-centered approach to community empowerment and anti-poverty efforts. With the help of a volunteer network of 140 professional chefs, the group has launched culinary training programs, funded school kitchens, donated cooking equipment, and supported grassroots food businesses in places as diverse as Cuba, Zambia, and Cambodia.

In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew unleashed on Haiti, Andrés sunk WCK into disaster relief, too. Hurricanes Harvey in Houston, Maria in Puerto Rico, and Florence in North Carolina; 2018’s Indonesian tsunami and Guatemalan volcano eruption; the Camp Fires in Northern California—at every new emergency, World Central Kitchen was there, often ahead of other agencies, feeding displaced and hungry people. This past November, as a caravan of 7,000 Central Americans approached the border, migrant rights advocates beckoned Andrés to Tijuana, and the organization broadened its response to other kinds of humanitarian crises.

As the chef told me, “One of my favorite quotes is from John Steinbeck: ‘Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, we’ll be there.’”

Opening and garnishing pupusas - Photo by Betsy Andrews

But emergency relief isn’t enough in Andrés mind. As in natural disasters, the hungry people at the border needed help with long-term solutions. “Ever since we started World Central Kitchen, I have seen a similar story,” he said in an email. “There is a disaster, and organizations rush in with lots of money, and some of them do very good work, but then the money and the interest starts to dry up and the organizations leave. People might have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their infrastructure, and their sources for food. It is important to feed people in need, but it is also vital to be building up resilience against future disasters, so that next time, they will be able to better support themselves and their neighbors.”

By the time I got to Tijuana, World Central Kitchen was preparing less than half the 3,500 daily meals it served at the height of its work in December. Andrés himself, who is always there to kick off WCK missions, had long ago returned home to D.C., and several staffers had followed him to feed furloughed federal workers there. The kitchen crew remaining in Tijuana was cooking primarily for smaller, pastor-run shelters and plotting an exit that included a strategy of food security for subsequent waves of migrants. I had come at just the right moment to see how the organization helped to create that sustained resilience of which the chef spoke.

Given the lengthy wait to drive back into the States from Mexico, the easiest way to navigate the world’s busiest border crossing from San Diego is to walk, which I did early on my first morning at World Central Kitchen. The U.S. side boasts an enormous collection of outlet stores. On the Mexican side, there’s a square with a kiosk where, in cooperation with the Trump Administration’s “metering” system, Grupos Beta hands out numbers to migrants like they’re in line at a delicatessen. If your number comes up, you present yourself to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for the chance to be detained, interviewed, fitted with a tracking anklet, and subjected to deportation hearings—all hopefully en route to asylum. Only a few get called each day. Most migrants wait and wait.