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Our EveryAction Hero: World Central Kitchen

Rohita Javangula

World Central Kitchen was founded by chef and activist José Andres in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then the organization has grown to work in 10 different countries. 

Using the expertise of its Chef Network, WCK works to empower people to be a part of the solution with a focus on health, education, jobs, and disaster relief.

I called up Jeanette Morelan from WCK to talk about food as an agent for change and some of their recent work around the world.

Jewish Voice for Peace

To start out can you just tell us a little bit about World Central Kitchen and the work you do?

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, our founder José felt compelled by the news and flew down. Once there, he started doing what he does best -- cook. It opened up the question of what roles chefs can play in international development. It was from that experience that World Central Kitchen was born.

We wanted to do something different and go beyond short term relief. Our work started by focusing on long term empowerment projects. One of our first programs is our culinary school in Port-Au-Prince, which helps train aspiring chefs from Haiti and give them the skills they need to obtain jobs in Haiti’s growing tourism industry.

We're currently active in 10 different countries. Last year disaster relief once again became the main focus of our organization as we activated and served over 4 million meals in Peru, Houston, Puerto Rico, and California. This year, we have activated kitchens to respond to the volcanoes in Hawaii and Guatemala. We stepped back in to the disaster relief space with the launch of our #ChefsforPuertoRico campaign. We have a recipe for how to address disaster quickly and effectively: kitchens and volunteers. And it worked really well in Puerto Rico - we’ve served over 3.6 million meals!

World Central Kitchen was founded in the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake and since then you’ve been one of the names synonymous with the Puerto Rico relief efforts. Can you talk a little bit about your response from the development and communications side?

So to give you an idea, we were a 3 person organization before Puerto Rico and we’re still a small organization. For the past 5 or 6 years we've had a small but steady group of supporters who are primarily invested in our empowerment projects. There was definitely a huge amount of growth after we launched our #ChefsforPuertoRico campaign. We used social media in a really innovative way to showcase that campaign and to show all the work that José and our volunteers were doing on the ground. People really responded to this, particularly because it was a unique, grassroots narrative. We’d gone from 5,000 to 30,000 supporters over the course of a few months.. It was definitely a moment of explosive growth.

Our strategy always centers around being on the ground. We were opening kitchens without the idea of how to pay for it. To us that was more important, but thankfully the resources followed the work! José always says there was no meeting, no planning, we just started cooking. That applies to our communications as well. We weren't just going to wait until we had the financial resources to open another kitchen when so many were in need. We knew we would find a way and thankfully we had this outpouring of support.

That's another thing about our organization: we're small but we've got really good partners. We had all these amazing volunteers and food trucks and chefs who had managed their own businesses but lost so much after the hurricane and decided that they wanted to offer their time and resources to WCK. So they really helped us expand far more than we would have been able to if we'd been doing this on our own. We had over 20,000 volunteers in Puerto Rico alone, most of whom were Puerto Ricans who had been impacted by the hurricane themselves.


Chefs for Puerto Rico

It seems like one of the key parts of the work you do is utilizing your Chef Network. How do you go about building this network and what role do they play in the work you do?

The Chef Network is the backbone of our organization. We have about 200 chefs who lend their time and expertise. For example, one of the chefs that we work with,Tim Kilcoyne, we met while responding to the Thomas Fire in Ventura. Tim helped us there, led our kitchen in Hawaii, and even came with us to Guatemala.

It's amazing the relationships that you build and how lasting they are. We’ve got a really great network of chefs who all help in different ways with them lending their voice and working in their own community or working with us on the front lines.

With so much happening it’s easy to forget about the rebuilding process and move on to the next thing. How do you keep your donors and audience engaged even after an issue has moved out of the news cycle?

We try to be really responsive on social media and on our email list. This means tailoring our content to both the head and the heart. I want to show people that their money has gone to a very targeted response; we've got huge spreadsheets of every meal in Puerto Rico with who made it, who delivered it, where it went. At the same time, each meal has a story.

We actually had a Puerto Rican chef impacted by the hurricane who came with us to Guatemala to cook with us. Those are the real heroes of our organization. So it just shows that you don't have to be a celebrity chef or a celebrity anyone to enact change. These people were just ordinary chefs who realized that the skills they have can actually make an incredible impact.

A recent campaign that you’re working on is #ChefsforGuatamala. Can you talk about building out your rapid response for this in the aftermath of the volcano eruption and any ways that you’re using EveryAction tools in this campaign?

Within just a few days after the volcano erupted, our Executive Director, Nate Mook, headed down to start establishing operations.. Finding a kitchen and finding food are the first steps for our efforts, and we located a kitchen in Antigua through some connections. The next is working with delivery drop off points and identifying the shelters. We mapped out all the official and unofficial shetlers and start connecting with people on the ground there. Providing meals is just one part of the puzzle of comprehensive disaster relief, so we need to partner with other organizations to make sure our meals are part of the bigger picture.. Because we focus on those few key elements, we're able to start getting thousand of meals out the door and start our rapid response almost immediately.

We did use EveryAction to create a custom page where we could track donations specifically for Guatemala. Especially since at the same time we have relief efforts going on in Hawaii and Puerto Rico as well. So we have pages for all of these relief efforts so donors who would like to specifically donate to one are able to.

We also work to keep people updated multiple times a day especially through Twitter. We'll say things like "here's is where lunch is being delivered today" "here is what where we're going this afternoon". We try to provide as much information to our network of support as we can!


Chefs for Guatemala

Another thing I love about your website is the number of stories you have that display the variety of work you do. How is storytelling important to your organization and what is your process for collecting and sharing those stories?

Stories are central to our mission. I love telling stories and getting to know people. I often travel down to the places we're working in and actually meet people and get a sense of what's going on. I think a key trend in our stories is that we don't over analyze things. There's an essence of what's going on and it's less important what words I use and how I tell the story than it is to just let the individual's story speak for itself. These stories help our supporters and donors put themselves in the shoes of the people we work with and just really celebrate their bravery and commitment.

WCK Stories

A really cool feature that I noted on both your website and in your email are your action plans. I thought that was a really amazing way of being transparent to your donors while also giving them some great information.

Action plans are a relatively new feature of the organization. We’re always trying to adapt and grow. Most people don't have the time to read through full report, so atweet, video, or infographic can give you essential information that’s actionable. We try to create those moments for donors to see what we're doing and help.

And to wrap up can you share a recent success that you're proud of?

We just had our first graduation at new culinary school building in Haiti! It really showcases our efforts moving from beyond just relief to empowerment. When people think of Haiti they just think of the earthquake and feel like it's some hopeless situation, but there’s so much more happening than just that. Our culinary school is just one example. Our students are getting all this amazing training and coming out with beautiful dishes. All of them get placed in internships after graduation and most of them get jobs right after finishing their internship. We've actually had a few students that are head chefs at restaurants in Haiti now and are really learning and growing and translating their passion for food into a career. So as much as I'm proud of our ability to mobilize quickly and activate in relief situations, I'm equally as proud of ways we've been able to change the conversation around what development looks like and creating empowerment solutions that make sense for the communities we're working in.

Jewish Voice for Peace Donation Page

To learn more about World Central Kitchen visit their website here.

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Topics: everyaction hero