Chef Jose Andres on how World Central Kitchen feeds the victims of natural—and man-made—disasters.

World Central Kitchen is known largely for responding to natural disasters. We were there after the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. When the volcanoes erupted in Guatemala last year. California forest fires, Carolina floods, Indonesian tsunamis—our team is trained to be first food responders when Mother Nature gets a little crazy.

But not all disasters are natural. When we heard about the 6,000 migrants in camps across Tijuana, we knew we had work to do. We are there because it’s the right thing to do. We are there because the people of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador need our help. Above all we are there because people are hungry. Our motto at World Central Kitchen comes from one of my favorite books, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.”

According to Nate Mook, who runs World Central Kitchen, when they started in Tijuana thousands of refugees were camping on a sports field with the winter rains creating a muddy, unsanitary mess, so they moved to El Barretal.

We’ve been at the Mexican border since early December, feeding people in the different shelters set up across Tijuana—above all in El Barretal, an old nightclub now converted into a shelter for 2,000 migrants.

El Barretal is divided in two. The women and children are in the back, the men mostly in the front. At night, temperatures reach in the 40s. Many people don’t have adequate clothes, and children are sick. But they are making the most of it, not really understanding what is going on. A little economy has popped up, with a barber cutting hair, and a vendor selling individual cigarettes. The government provides a small stipend for churches willing to host these refugees, but it is barely enough to pay for water and electricity. This is why World Central Kitchen is there. The least we can do is offer the dignity of a hot meal to those who need it most.

We are chefs, first and foremost, and we want to use those skills to feed people the best food possible, quickly and efficiently. So, when we set up in a new part of the world, we bring our experience, and the systems we’ve developed over the years, but we also come ready to adapt to the local terrain. We always partner with locals who become our volunteers and supporters. They are the key to our success, no matter where we operate in the world. From the beginning, we’ve had a lot of help from people in Tijuana—chefs for the people, we call them, and they’ve been sensational.

We’ve learned a lot about how best to feed people in these scenarios. At El Barretal, we serve thousands of tortillas a day, but we don’t make the tortillas ourselves; we buy the tortillas in bulk from the best tortilla-maker down the road. We serve them with stewed or grilled meat, a scoop of rice, some fresh veggies, some pico de gallo, and boom—a healthy meal for a family looking for some kind of normalcy in an impossible situation.

Brenden Darby, 28, of San Francisco, cooks over 30 pounds of beef in the World Central Kitchen headquarters in Tijuana.
World Central Kitchen volunteers make sandwiches in preparation for lunch.

Then, there are the sandwiches. It’s amazing what a simple, well-made ham and cheese sandwich can do to lift someone’s spirits. Sandwiches were a huge part of our recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and we continue to serve thousands of them a day. All told, we’ve served more than 200,000 meals during our time in Mexico.

Some people in the U.S. don’t realize that if these people leave, if they decide to abandon their homes and walk thousands of miles to the north, it’s because they’re in very bad shape—people fleeing levels of violence and poverty that are hard for most Americans to imagine. I talked with coffee farmers who have lost entire crops because they couldn’t buy pesticides and insecticides to keep their plants healthy in a tropical environment. When their crops die, they have to wait another three years before they can plant again. It’s a long time for anyone to wait—but for someone without resources, it’s an eternity.

I wonder why the U.S. government doesn’t invite the presidents of those countries to Washington, D.C. to discuss the underlying issues driving people to the border. I wonder why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t go to those countries to better understand the causes of these border issues, and come up with a plan that addresses the root of the problem.

This is not a national crisis for the United States—it’s a humanitarian crisis for the entire region.

Lines of Central American refugees wait as World Central Kitchen serves lunch to over 1,400 people in the El Barretal camp outside of Tijuana, Mexico.
1: Johnathan Torres, 10, of Honduras, helps World Central Kitchen serve dinner. 2: Julian Alvarez Berger, of Tijuana, serves lunch for World Central Kitchen at the El Barretal camp.
Women and children wait in line for a hot meal at the El Barretal camp.

Instead of communicating that the U.S. doesn’t want immigrants, why don’t we finally address immigration reform so that we can have a better system in place?

I talked to a lot of people while I was down in Tijuana. I didn’t get the sense that people were following our crazy political fights closely. That’s not what’s on their minds right now. What they want is a chance for a better life, however possible. These people are waiting to apply for asylum, they are waiting for someone to listen to them, but we’ve stopped listening. We see that a lot of people are starting to lose hope and turning back home. We’re trying to do our part, one plate at a time, to show people we care about them.

The government’s job should be to take care of its citizens. And when it’s a government as large and powerful as the U.S. government, it should use its power to help its neighbors—because a strong region benefits all of us. Not only is the  government not solving problems, it’s creating new ones. Which is why we’ve decided to open a new kitchen right in the nation’s capital.

Siblings play on a dinner table at El Barretal camp.

We’re still down in Tijuana, feeding 3,000 people a day, but now we’re up and running in Washington, D.C., right on Pennsylvania Avenue, feeding the people on the other side of this wall issue—the thousands of federal employees who aren’t being paid for their jobs. If you think this is a political stunt, I suggest you talk to the people I talk to everyday in D.C.—fathers and mothers with families who suddenly don’t know when the next check is coming. They’re hungry, and we’re here for them, too.

I’ve noticed something pretty crazy going back and forth between Tijuana and Washington D.C. these past few weeks. Americans, even the ones with good homes and stable lives, see the future as something dark and troubling. Down in the camps around the border we have some of the poorest and most desperate families, and yet they see the glass as half-full. They have made this trip to embark on a better life, and they have hope. 

It’s a powerful reminder that in this world, we need shorter walls and longer tables. That’s how I’ve always felt about the world. Now more than ever.