As the coronavirus takes a grip on the world, the question of food and its supply is one we can’t ignore. Chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen has experience of working in disaster areas where supply chain infrastructures are severely compromised. Their knowledge can help ensure that people get the vital help they need if things deteriorate to the point that they have trouble sourcing food.
“What you’re seeing now with panic buying is not too dissimilar to what happens before a natural disaster like a hurricane coming onshore,” says Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen.
“It’s very natural because people are unsure of what’s going to happen. I think the reality is that supply chains are very vulnerable because they’re not designed to handle a big influx of people purchasing everything at the same time, whether it’s our grocery stores, our gas stations there’s a reliance on the fact that not everyone shows up at the exact same moment. So we’re in a tricky situation.”
Nate Mook, CEO, World Central Kitchen
World Central Kitchen has already responded to the coronavirus outbreak and been able to lean on the experience of having worked in disease-stricken areas. When the Grand Princess cruise ship was docked in Tokyo and quarantined because of a case of coronavirus found on board, WCK were on the ground working within 18 hours of the first call.
“We recognised that we were in a very complicated situation, we have some experience of working in these situations. We were in Mozambique last year when there was a big cholera outbreak, after a cyclone hit, and we had to develop our operations to work in the middle of an outbreak, to keep people safe,” says Mook.
“We all know food is a very vulnerable vector for disease to spread. If a cook in a kitchen prepares a pot of soup and that soup reaches 500 people and that cook is sick, then you’ve got one person that could potentially infect 500 hundred people."
Because of this, getting the preparation and cooking of food away from the ship, to a central location in Tokyo, was crucial. They spent two weeks there, creating a logistics supply chain for getting the food to the port and the ship. When a second ship docked in California for the same reasons, WCK were able to react quickly to the situation.
World Central Kitchen workers in Oakland, California
A cruise ship is very different to what the world is facing now in terms of scale, but there are learnings at a micro level that can be brought to the macro. WCK are working on models and blueprints that can be brought to affected areas to ensure that people get fed in the midst of a pandemic.
“The main challenge we're facing here in the US is that a lot of the food we consume is handled in places that we don’t really think about,” Mook says
“For example, the school systems. In the US many, if not most kids, rely on getting a meal when they’re at school during the day. There are also summer camps and out of school programmes that run, so what you’re going to see is the typical food sources for people will be cut off. The challenge is how to fill that gap. You’re not going to have the ability for kids to congregate, you might not be able to get the staff to feed them.”
The situation is further complicated by the number of families that exist on casual labour, in the gig economy or tipped workers. Many of these people depend on their children being fed at school
“You’re going to see a domino effect and you’re going to see people not be able to make their salaries and not be able to feed their families,” says Mook.
“We saw this first hand when the US government shut down a year ago, WCK activated, not immediately, it takes a few weeks for things to get really dire, about a month into it when people started missing their pay checks. These were hardworking Americans who never had to ask for a free meal in their lives.”
Nate Mook with a government worker in Washington D.C.
These are nervous times, however, it’s important to remain calm and keep an optimistic outlook. The media can paint a grim picture of how things might unfold, but it’s not all gloom and doom.
“The good news in the case of coronavirus versus a hurricane which can damage a port or restrict the flow of goods is that we’re seeing, at least so far, that things are continuing to run smoothly.”
“In terms of the food supply chain and the transport of food between places, at least in the metropolitan areas. However, we are going to see things get a bit tighter in areas that are further afield, that are more rural, harder for goods to reach.”
“Supply chains are holding strong but we need to be smart about the steps that we take in the coming weeks and months because the US is a much larger population than Italy with a much larger geographical area that we’re going to have to respond to so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to plan for that right now.”
The current advice that everyone should wash their hands is something chefs live with on a daily basis. Their experience in the protocols of food hygiene as well as their unparalleled knowledge of food supply and how to feed people are crucial to the work that World Central Kitchen does on the ground.
“Chefs have a central role to play,” says Mook. “We work with people in the culinary industry, we work with chefs, with restaurants all over the world and as this crisis progresses, and it’s really going to require all of us working together - the NGO sector like us, working with the private sector and also governments and the public sector. Chefs can play a central role in this crisis.”
As the situation progresses, WCK will rely on the expert knowledge of those in the restaurant industry to tackle food-related problems that might occur.
“People can come and volunteer for our kitchens and we announce that through our social media channels. Donations are one of the best ways to support our work because it goes directly to purchasing the food to feed people,” Mook tells us.
As always in a crisis, food becomes more important, it will unite people and it will nourish and fuel the recovery, however, in a pandemic, food can also be a threat, expert knowledge from the chef community and beyond will make all the difference.