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  • Anjali Gupta

Interview with World Central Kitchen CEO, An Inspirational Leader Through This Pandemic

Food supply chains have been affected by this pandemic. What impact does this have on the availability of food across our nation and on food insecurity? In the United States alone, there are about 40 million food-insecure individuals and more than 11 million are children. Some predict the numbers of children could increase to 18 million (1 in 4) children. What can be done to assist? World Central Kitchen has been a leader in our national efforts. What can we learn as a country from them?

Q & A Today

Nate Mook, CEO World Central Kitchen

Q: What are the issues food supply chains are facing?

This crisis has exposed a lot of challenges and the fragility of our food supply chain. Part of the problem is that this crisis is everywhere. It is not geographically limited where we can move things in to the center of one location. This time the entire country is impacted, and it is showing us the flaws in the system. From the beginning of this pandemic, there was a run on grocery stores, hoarding of supplies, and food banks were overwhelmed and unable to keep up. What is interesting is that while all of this was occurring in in some geographic areas, other areas had plenty and lacked demand. So while a Trader Joe's in the suburbs might have been emptied out, in other urban areas, the stores were stocked fine. While the food banks in New Orleans were out, the food banks in another part of the country were ok. The missing pieces of this system involve relocating and remapping across the country so that we can provide availability of food to match where the demand is. Plowing under crops and dumping milk were typical in some places where there was no need; however, in other places they were desperate for food. From a logistics perspective, getting food where it is needed has been difficult. That has produced the dichotomy of this situation. So it is easy to wonder why we are seeing photos of unused potatoes being thrown out yet long lines at food banks. How can these two things co-exist? The biggest learning curve has been how we think about food availability and the logistics and distribution. What is the mechanism to do this in our country?

What are some of the effects as a nation?

It is interesting despite our fears, we are not running out of food overall. But everybody is feeling effects in some way. Some are slowed down in their process of obtaining it, whether it is standing in lines for stores or longer wait times for online groceries.

There is plenty of capacity in the system. Besides the shortages on meat because of the processing plants, we have not had problems purchasing food. It is again more an issue of connecting the dots between where the food is needed and where it is. The USDA supports and advocates for farmers. What we need is a Department of Food that is thinking about food on a more holistic level. We do advocate for the growing and selling of food right now with the USDA. But what we are learning from this pandemic is that we need to link food to our national security. Food is stability. How do we get food to those who need it most? Can you imagine if we had military equipment not connected? What if we could not mobilize our military equipment from CA? Yet we have not figured food out as a country.

What is the impact on food insecurity?

Food insecurity is pervasive and the large numbers are everywhere. The food insecurity issue is tied to the economic impact of this pandemic. It is a health crisis and we are all trying to be safe which has caused an economic shutdown which has caused 37 million to be unemployed which has now turned into a humanitarian crisis. Traditionally, there are 37 million food-insecure individuals and 11 million of these are children in America. Though the social infrastructure is not perfect, it is built to respond to this. But families who are traditionally not food-insecure, the families who usually have jobs and earn paychecks and participate in our economy...because of this pandemic and its circumstances, these individuals are now becoming food-insecure also. We do not have capacity in our system for these growing numbers. They can't afford to put food on their table and it is creating a snowball effect. No paycheck results in needing food assistance and a system that needs more support to develop. The longer this goes on, the worse this gets. We are going to need our government to come up with smart solutions and interventions to assist this problem.

It is hard to know what this rise in numbers will look like and the total effect on the numbers of children. Currently, USDA has had some waivers until June 30th for schools so that more children can get fed. These waivers allow schools to do grab and go meals, any child (not just those qualifying for free meals) can be fed, and multiple meals (such as breakfast and lunch) can be given together. There is concern that this waiver has not been extended yet past June 30th which would drastically reduce the meals for children this summer past June 30th.

Disaster relief is usually temporary and then things get back to normal. But with this pandemic we need some fundamental changes. How do we activate existing tools and resources? If we can get workers in restaurants working again, there are less food-insecure individuals and there is food people can reach. It gets the wheels of society churning again. It is a different approach than our typical disaster relief.

What is World Central Kitchen doing to address these issues?

Our work around this pandemic is our Chefs For America initiative. In the early days of this pandemic, World Central Kitchen did the cooking ourselves. We were making meals to feed 10-12,000 in Nats Park as our initial response. But quickly within a couple weeks, we were very aware of the scale of this issue. We rapidly began partnering with kitchens and restaurants in a pilot program. In some ways this is different from our typical disaster relief. Pre-packaged individual fresh meals we are doing now are different than us serving hot meals after disasters. People can not come together during this pandemic and congregate like they do after disasters. Even with disaster relief, we do activate some kitchens, hire chefs and food trucks to help. But it is different because often after a disaster, the infrastructure is damaged in the early days of food production. During this pandemic, we are enabling production from other kitchens in restaurants. This allows us to restart 10,000 employees eager to go back to work, increase capacity, train and work with them, teach them health safety and protocol. We are activating and leveraging local resources (caterers and restaurants). Currently we are working with 1200 restaurants in 225 cities across the country.

How are you scaling efforts with the FEED Act?

The underlying point is that donor and philanthropic support enables World Central Kitchen to do great work, but it can only go so far. We need to scale to address the current need. No amount of philanthropic support can cover the need at hand. The donor support for the World Central Kitchen model jump starts us. It shows a model that works. It creates systems to show what is possible. But this model needs to be scaled up and amplified with federal government funding to state and local governments. We need to authorize and empower FEMA further. Traditionally, they cover 75% and the states need to cover 25%. We need to scale this to give states 100% support so we can provide food and reach everywhere that needs food. World Central Kitchen can't go everywhere that is needed right now with donations alone. We have shown the possibility and the effective architecture that can bring back jobs and feed thousands of families. We need to be able to replicate this model across the country with the support and assistance of the federal government.

The $1200 stipend is a band-aid to the problem. A loan to a restaurant does not help them purchase food from the farmers. The only thing that helps that cycle going is buying meals from restaurants. That touches the restaurant employees, the distributors, and the farmers. The greater number of touch points in this system gets the machine going again. It is a bridge to operations in a more sustainable way.

The FEED Act is in the legislative process. It has bipartisan support in both chambers. It will hopefully get incorporated into a larger stimulus CARES Act in the following weeks/months. It amends the Stafford Act which is the emergency declaration act. So this 100 percent FEMA support would be applicable not only for this COVID-19 pandemic but also for future disasters permanently.

We hope this underscores the alternatives and the long term implications for our country.

The current 75% system benefits wealthier states. For less wealthy states and cities, there is not a large budget to cover the cost of providing 25%. These states and cities can opt not to feed people because they can't afford it. If we don't help cover this as a nation, it could make the situation worse and cause recovery and the effects of this pandemic to linger.

Thank you to Nate and Jose and World Central Kitchen for the inspiration!

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