We Fed an Island/ posted in: Book Review, Foodies Read, Reading We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by José Andrés
on September 11th 2018
Published by Anthony Bourdain/Ecco
Setting: Puerto Rico
FOREWORD BY LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA AND LUIS A. MIRANDA, JR.
The true story of how a group of chefs fed hundreds of thousands of hungry Americans after Hurricane Maria and touched the hearts of many more
Chef José Andrés arrived in Puerto Rico four days after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island. The economy was destroyed and for most people there was no clean water, no food, no power, no gas, and no way to communicate with the outside world.
Andrés addressed the humanitarian crisis the only way he knew how: by feeding people, one hot meal at a time. From serving sancocho with his friend José Enrique at Enrique’s ravaged restaurant in San Juan to eventually cooking 100,000 meals a day at more than a dozen kitchens across the island, Andrés and his team fed hundreds of thousands of people, including with massive paellas made to serve thousands of people alone.. At the same time, they also confronted a crisis with deep roots, as well as the broken and wasteful system that helps keep some of the biggest charities and NGOs in business.
Based on Andrés’s insider’s take as well as on meetings, messages, and conversations he had while in Puerto Rico, We Fed an Island movingly describes how a network of community kitchens activated real change and tells an extraordinary story of hope in the face of disasters both natural and man-made, offering suggestions for how to address a crisis like this in the future.
Beyond that, a portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the Chef Relief Network of World Central Kitchen for efforts in Puerto Rico and beyond.
Chef Jose Andres has developed his theories on food relief first by working with a homeless shelter who used restaurant left overs to feed people and then expanding their process after the earthquake in Haiti. The biggest test so far of his small non-profit came after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
His ideas are simple:
- Find a working commercial kitchen and chefs. He started in a friend’s restaurant in San Juan.
- Source the ingredients locally to avoid delays and to let businesses in the supply chain start to rebuild. In Puerto Rico he used the normal suppliers that restaurants would use.
- Make a few simple dishes that can be made in huge quantities. They started with a stew, pans of chicken and rice, and thousands of ham and cheese sandwiches.
- Use local food trucks to deliver food to the hardest hit areas. Also partner with whatever group is going into areas and have them deliver food. Among his best delivery teams in Puerto Rico was Homeland Security.
- Open other commercial kitchens in strategic areas around the disaster area and repeat. Throughout his time in Puerto Rico they used a convention center, school kitchens, culinary school kitchens, and a church.
One of his major complaints about the food situation in Puerto Rico was that the groups who normally handle this in disasters on the mainland decided that it was too hard to get food to the island so they didn’t. The Red Cross for example, didn’t bring in the Southern Baptists and their mobile kitchens to cook like they normally do so they didn’t have any food to deliver. (I had no idea the Southern Baptists have a whole relief cooking operation despite going to a Southern Baptist church for four years. Never heard of it.) Food and water distribution was not listed as a priority for most groups.
When food was getting distributed it was MREs. These are prepared military food packets and they can get you through a few days but you don’t want them long term. He was also angry that water was being given in bottles only. He campaigned for tanker trucks of water to be taken to towns and let people fill their own containers instead of adding all the plastic waste to the environment. That idea didn’t get taken up.
A lot of this book is about his fight with FEMA. He wanted a government contract to pay for his supplies. He had started ordering food and supplies on a handshake with the distributor with no idea how he was going to pay for it. At their peak they were spending over $50,000 a day on food. Government contracting is a slow business that is doubly hard in a disaster. He talks about contracts that were given to people who never delivered food. The husband was a government contract person (not with FEMA). He listened to some of this part and talked about the other side. After disasters, FEMA contractors are apparently reviewed and taken to task for working too quickly, for not getting bids even if there is only one supplier in the area, etc. Careers get ruined because people were trying to do the right or fastest thing in an emergency and now there is a lot of trouble trying to get anyone to do those jobs and those who remain aren’t likely to take risks. Things are just going to get worse.
This is a good review of what happened in the disaster from the point of view of an outsider to the government. His ideas are definitely worth listening to and I’m interested to see where his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, goes from here.