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3 Lessons from “We Feed People”

Earlier this year, Disney and National Geographic released a documentary called We Feed People about chef José Andrés and his organization World Central Kitchen (WCK). While I was familiar (a little) with Andrés and WCK, it was fascinating to learn more about the history.

And several of the things he discussed or discovered seem to apply not only to WCK but more universally to food.

A personal touch is best

When Andrés started getting involved in disaster relief, he was astounded that much of the time, no one had a plan for food. Or if they had a plan, it usually involved blanketly distributing MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) that soldiers would eat.

But while MREs may give you nutrients, they certainly don’t offer much in the way of taste or appearance, nor do they provide the deep nourishment you get with a hot, freshly cooked meal.

And MREs aren’t personal in any way. They could be dropped at central locations without anyone ever coming into direct contact with those eating the food.

Andrés prefers a much more personal approach, where cooked meals are hand-delivered to those in need. The documentary even showed him bringing a special birthday treat and singing happy birthday to an elderly veteran in Puerto Rico. The veteran was clearly delighted.

That kind of personal touch and contact is, I think, what makes food so important to us. It reminds us that we’re being cared for, that someone values us and will make an effort to show it.

Make the food they want

Another telling moment was early on when Andrés went somewhere (I think Haiti, but I’m not quite sure), and he started cooking a black bean dish the way he liked it.

But he noticed that the local women who were helping him prep the food kept giving him sidelong looks. Eventually, he asked why, and they said that while they appreciated what he was doing, his version of black beans wasn’t how they preferred it.

Andrés could have gotten huffy about it and stuck with his recipe, but he didn’t. He listened to them and asked them to show him their version, and that’s what he ended up making.

He carried that lesson forward, talking to the locals when he arrived in disaster areas to see what kinds of food they usually had – and who could help him make it.

This seems like such a valuable lesson for food and other areas of life. We all have different tastes and preferences, favorite dishes from our childhoods, and we like things made a certain way. And we do best when we acknowledge those different tastes and learn from each other, especially since you could end up with a new favorite meal.

Keep it simple

And finally, although Andrés owns restaurants and has done lots of fancy cooking, he knows that’s not always called for. In many situations, the best thing to do is keep it simple.

After all, when he and his team first arrive in disaster relief areas, it can take them a while to find a working kitchen that’s big enough to meet their needs. While they look, people still need to eat.

So Andrés keeps it simple with his own version of an MRE: a sandwich and a piece of fruit.

It’s not complicated, but it works to fill hungry bellies, and those are meals that can be put together quickly.

It might get old if every meal was like that, of course, but even with cooked food, simple things like beans and rice, tacos, and hearty soups can help so much.

I think it’s sometimes easy to make food complicated, odd as that may sound. After years of diet culture, it can be hard for many of us to be straightforward about food. That’s why I like Andrés’s very direct approach.

As he says, “We feed people.”

Simple as that.

Feeling grateful for food

My other takeaway from the documentary was a great feeling of gratitude that I’ve never faced those kinds of disaster situations or experienced food insecurity. I’ve always had enough to eat, but that’s not the case for many. And with the war in Ukraine and the changing climate, more and more people are going to be in situations where they don’t have the food they need.

So, I am grateful for all that I have and will try not to take it for granted. And I’m grateful for Andrés and those at WCK who help so many in need.

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