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Casi Puertoriqueña, Casi Chef

I am not Puerto Rican and I am not a chef. Why then have I spent the last seventy-four days leading #ChefsForPuertoRico, the island’s largest feeding operation? Because I am a human being, an American, a living breathing organism whose very survival depends upon the consumption of food and water — and because Hurricane Maria has left millions of people, citizens of the United States, without access to basic necessities. How would you cook without power, water, diesel or other fuel? People in Puerto Rico were hungry, people are hungry — and chefs have the unique skillset to adapt to feed the masses with anything or nothing. That was a wild vision of Chef José Andrés. 3,041,414. We have not only prepared 3,041,414 balanced, nutritious hot meals and quality sandwiches from scratch to date; we have delivered those 3,041,414 meals to people in need across Puerto Rico. Our #ChefsForPuertoRico team identifies islandwide need, cooks, dispatches, serves and tracks every one — focusing on the most vulnerable populations.

Delivering hot meals to children in Loiza with our #ChefsForPuertoRico “Yummy Dumpling” food truck. (Photo credit: Eric Rojas)

Meals are more than food, more than a plate, more than calories — representing sustenance, hope, opportunity, community, health, love, proof that you’re not forgotten. People know and adore these Puerto Rican recipes, prepared by local chefs with local ingredients from local vendors to support local supply chains — all of which we pay for and purchase. At a time when many businesses are contracting or relying on donations of goods or services, we are proud to sustain, provide and create jobs across industries. #ChefsForPuertoRico is firmly committed to meeting critical feeding needs effectively, efficiently and economically WITHOUT flooding the market with free food or limiting small businesses, private sector growth or the reemerging economy in the shifting landscape of relief and recovery.

 “Erin, good morning — would you be able to go to Puerto Rico? We have big dreams in setting up kitchens throughout the country. When can you get down there?” And the next day, I was on the ground with my dear friend and fellow mover-shaker, Chef José Andrés. That was the last I wrote from Puerto Rico — on the day we moved into a new main kitchen at El Choliseo, served 8,000 meals, and he named me COO. The next day, we served 16,000. Every day, we scaled up, served more, dreamed more, did more — as many as 148,254 in one single day.

With Chef José Andrés at our El Choliseo kitchen within hours of arriving in Puerto Rico.

Beginning with the first pot of sancocho that Chef José Andrés made outside of Jose Enrique’s acclaimed-albeit-closed San Juan restaurant when he arrived after Hurricane Maria, #ChefsForPuertoRico has one goal: to feed the people of Puerto Rico who need to be fed. From the 22 kitchens we’ve opened in elderly homes, churches, closed restaurants, pre-schools, beach clubs, hotels, culinary institutes, we deliver fresh food every day by whatever means necessary across all 78 municipalities — carfootfood truckboatplanehelicopter — to hospitals, public housing, orphanages, universities, clinics, community centers, egidas, sometimes door by door to reach the bedridden. 

Our team began cooking immediately after the hurricane, scaled to test out the entirely unreasonable concept of leveraging chefs to feed an island, then maximized daily output to meet acute needs during the peak of the feeding crisis — serving between 120,000 and 150,000 meals a day for two weeks — through an intelligence and data-based approach to cooking and hot meal distribution. Our commitment to Hurricane Maria relief, the health of the Puerto Rican population, and investment in the economy have only continued to deepen. Working closely with local government officials, first responders, law enforcement (Homeland Security and Coast Guard delivered our food on missions), small businesses, non-profit organizations (including Mercy CorpsRed Cross, Save The Children who included our food on their deliveries) and thousands of volunteers, while leveraging digital platforms and social media, our operations focus on identifying and addressing critical needs — not because it is easy or glamorous, but because it is necessary. The federal government stepped up, albeit belatedly, to feed American citizens through more robust FEMA operations, but outstanding needs have remained, especially outside of San Juan. #ChefsForPuertoRico has bridged this gap with targeted distribution that responds quickly to multiple sources to deliver for the most vulnerable segments of the population and communities without adequate food access. People still need food; the emergency continues; communities remain in disaster mode — which is why we have ongoing operations with satellite kitchens across the island to support specific, local needs, while funding restoration of prep kitchens for chefs, restaurants and food trucks to enable small businesses to relaunch with full or enhanced capabilities.

Chef José Andrés serving hot pastelón out of the back of a truck on a helicopter delivery we did to an Utuado mountaintop town, the community’s first hot meal in over three weeks.

• • •

Millions remain without power, hundreds of thousands without water. With the Coast Guard, I responded to an SOS to deliver food and bottled water to 300 people in the mountains of Rincón who live on a dead end street that had received neither government attention, nor running water in 46 days at that point — not one drop from the faucet to bathe, wash, flush, nothing. A power outage is not ‘mere’ lights; it is lives, safety, infrastructure, economy, livelihoods, supplies, everything. A few weeks ago, we were told to celebrate estimated reports of just over 50% of the island having access to power that is unreliable at best, before greater San Juan promptly plummeted into darkness once again, joining the black night landscape.

Municipalities remain completely cut off. From a non-profit partner, I got word of a woman outside of Utuado with a comprised respiratory system who needed medicines, in addition to food. Because of the scale and depth of our operation, I made some phone calls and was able to obtain the specific item. Chef José, myself and our team set out to deliver it in the mountainous heart of the island, but not before having to cross a dry river bed, climb a ladder to reach the little that was left of a desecrated bridge, and hike part of the steep trail to the woman’s home before one of the few cars came to fetch us in the rain. Medicines, solar lights, generators, and more have become parts of our operations in times of need.

Communities were in dire straits prior to Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, adding insult to injury. Housing projects are among those which have been forgotten or overlooked by much of the disaster response, but #ChefsForPuertoRico shows up regularly, in the heart of the largest public housing in the Caribbean in San Juan and in ones in remote regions of the country. I’ve sat with kids for hours on basketball courts, making deals about why they should eat their veggies — winning the respect of mothers islandwide!

A girl in the mountains of Yabucoa, after we brought bandejas of hot food and sandwiches to her community.

The ends of the roads need our help. I believe in the philosophy of starting with the most remote areas, as little to none of the aid, attention, organizations or government assistance reaches those places — and we do just that with #ChefsForPuertoRico. Homeland Security and I drove to the top of a mountain in Yabuoca, one of the hardest hit municipalities, until we reached the badly damaged cell tower at its peak. We then turned around and began delivering food and water, house by house — if you can even call a floor with bathroom walls after Maria stripped it of walls and roof a “house” — to families who had seen almost zero assistance, save two singular visits by church groups in the six weeks since the hurricane.

A higher power is present here in Puerto Rico. I am not religious, but met a man and entire community who embody all I see to be good about religion. A pastor showed up at our main kitchen with an idea — to do more than pickup and deliver cooked food, rather organize his church to feed and serve those most in need throughout the eastern and central parts of the island. Something indescribable about Eliomar struck me immediately; I trusted him wholly and said YES. We have watched this humble, yet powerful individual accomplish what many would deem impossible: cooking hot, nutritious meals for up to 6,000 people a day from the tiny basement kitchen of his church, then leveraging parishioners of Iglesia Jesucristo de Monte Moriah and other houses of worship to deliver food to dozens of locations, including ejidas, public housing, churches and more. His boundless energy is inspiring, his honest commitment unwavering, his diverse skillsets unending. An indefatigable force for positive change, a beacon of hope, and a leader of values and integrity, Eliomar embodies the spirit, power and impact of #ChefsForPuertoRico — and so many unsung heroes of this island.

A selfie by Head Chef David Thomas on our first visit to Eliomar’s Naguabo church, when seven pastors presented to us about the ground-breaking importance and transformative power of #ChefsForPuertoRico in their communities.

• • •

I meant to write within days of my arrival, to offer a firsthand account of what was happening on the ground in Puerto Rico; I meant to write to offer a counter narrative to the failures of the federal government; I meant to write when we crossed the million meal threshold, two millionthree million or opened our twentieth kitchen; I meant to write on Thanksgiving, when we served over 40,000 full meals and hosted a sit down for our 400 beloved volunteers and partners; when the Coast Guard were making our rice and sandwiches in full uniform for days. And I really meant to write when Lin-Manuel Miranda came to visit our kitchen and he and I rapped In The Heights together on his Facebook page (if you know me, you know what this means)… but I didn’t, I couldn’t, I prioritized the work on the ground and forwent all Facebook posts, Instagram captions, even text message replies.

You cannot be an activist and a storyteller at the very same time — and in Puerto Rico, I chose to do the work and tell the stories later. Well, the moment has now come to reinsert myself into the conversation, because vocalizing and sharing is important for advocacy and affecting change. But I wish you could have been there every step of the way, for each magical moment, for each catastrophe, but it all happened — perhaps better because of my laser focus, 21-and-a-half-hour work days, and ability to coalesce and raise up the single greatest team I have ever had the privilege to know.

I have been knee-deep in paella pans, in loafs of bread, in trays of rice — and in the nitty-gritty of staff payroll, delivery schedules, airport transfers, mental health services, road closures, generator crises, cambro shipments, food truck repairs, hotel checkins, and my WhatsApp account, which has somehow become the go-to food hotline for the island. I am proud to be the only non-Puerto Rican left in our operation on the ground; this team has become a loving family, as Puerto Ricans stepped up to welcome me, to bring our vision to life, and to selflessly, tirelessly, beautifully, cohesively serve at a pivotal moment in history.

In the kitchen with our #ChefsForPuertoRico team and a special visitor: Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts.

We’ve been fortunate to share our #ChefsForPuertoRico story with a variety of media outlets — and I would encourage you to watch the brilliant 60 Minutes piece that came as a result of the three days Anderson Cooper and crew spent with us on the ground. Read the three NY Times articles Kim Severson filed after traversing the island with us. Check out the episode of Good Morning America filmed live at our kitchen with Robin Roberts. See Jorge Ramos making sandwiches and out on deliveries. If you want to experience how the work unfolded, peruse @ChefJoseAndres on Twitter and Instagram for our real time updates — and my twitter @ErinSchrode as well.

Where there is a person in need of food, a hungry mouth, an empty belly, or a brain waiting to be nourished, we show up! Our team has been meeting needs and dispatching hot meals, sandwiches, fruit, and water within hours seven-days-a-week for months.

We must ensure that food becomes a part of any solution; smart solutions to hunger and poverty is what World Central Kitchen has stood for since Chef José Andrés founded the non-profit after the earthquake in Haiti. And our #ChefsForPuertoRico program is living proof of the unique power of food to change the world.

As my brother and partner-in-good-trouble José says brilliantly: Who do you call in a medical emergency? Doctors. Who should you call in a feeding emergency? Chefs.

We are here. We have been here. We will be here — answering the calls for food, for water, for love, for dignity, for hope.


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