José Andrés Has Some Things To Get Off His Chest As World Central Kitchen Prepares For A Brutal Ukraine Winter

Chef José Andrés pulls out his iPhone to flip between two images from Ukraine. One, a video, shows a crowd of people getting hot soup in a tent staffed by his international food-aid group, World Central Kitchen. The other image is a tent stamped with a UNICEF logo. It’s dark and empty.

There was nothing in that United Nations tent but “a f—ing QR code,” Andrés tells Forbes during an interview at his recently opened Zaytinya restaurant in New York’s Flatiron district. World Central Kitchen, which travels the globe to provide meals to people devastated by war and natural disaster, has never devoted as many resources to one place as it has to Ukraine. The organization has more than 4,000 cooks and volunteers there, and Andrés himself has clocked more than 80 days in Ukraine since Russia began its unprovoked invasion more than eight months ago. Now that temperatures are dropping and there aren’t enough people and places handing out hot soup, Andrés is concerned that World Central Kitchen is entirely on its own.

“Where were the people? Where were the people?” Andrés says of the UN tent, his voice nearly a moan. “This is an open wound. Where is the money going?”

That’s brutal coming from Andrés, who’s among the most visible of global humanitarians. He promises that World Central Kitchen will feed hungry Ukrainians until at least the spring, but that’s not the organization’s mission. It’s supposed to distribute meals in emergencies, not spend more than a year in a war zone because millions of hungry Ukrainians have nowhere else to turn.

The tension is clearly something Andrés, 53, has been struggling with. “We’ve been massive and quick in our response,” he says. “It’s a fair question: where were they? And why does putting in the machine take so long?”

UNICEF declined to comment on allegations of inaction.

World Central Kitchen’s Ukraine effort has been funded by $10 million from the $100 million award that Andrés received from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The rest, or what Andrés promises is “99.99%,” has been paid for by small donations from foundations and concerned individuals.

So far this year, the organization has delivered 175 million meals in Ukraine from more than 8,100 distribution points that have reached more than 1,100 cities and towns there. In all, around the world, World Central Kitchen served 250 million meals in 2022.

Russia has weaponized food almost since the war began on February 24. In its first hours, a ship carrying grain for Cargill was hit, and in June a train bringing supplies for World Central Kitchen was destroyed by a Russian missile. According to the Ukrainian government, Russians have shot at silos and railways that move grain, and Russian combatants have stolen as much as 500,000 tons of grain from occupied areas and tried to sell it on the international market.

The Russian ships have also blockaded the Black Sea, where 30% of the world’s exported cereal grains are transported every year, trapping some 20 million tons in Ukraine’s silos and warehouses. That pushed up already high prices and diminished the supply available to countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East where millions are starving. International negotiations have made some headway toward opening up shipping, but any agreements remain on shaky grounds.

Since August, nearly all the food World Central Kitchen has distributed has been sourced from a network of Ukrainian farmers and producers. That gives survivors “a sense of dignity and hope and the strength to continue on in a very tough situation,” says Abiola Afolayan, a former UN official who’s now the international policy advisor for Bread For The World.

As Ukrainians prepare for a long winter, they undoubtedly remember their own famine, called Holodomor, which killed millions between 1932 and 1933. They say the Soviets orchestrated widespread deaths by rationing the amount of Ukrainian-grown food that stayed in Ukraine, while at the same time exporting it to other countries.

Andrés recognized almost immediately how dire the war could become. When news dropped of the Russian attack in February, he left Miami to fly to Ukraine without even pausing to take a winter coat. A jacket was mailed to him when he extended his stay.

“Ukrainians are used to cold, but they’re used to cold and winter with electricity,” Andrés says. “The war is still going on in places we can help, and this winter for us is an emergency.”