In fall 2017, as José Andrés and an untold number of volunteers were preparing millions of hot meals for Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria, the celebrity chef realized that the hunger that swept across the island was not just the result of a powerful Category 4 storm. It was the result of a natural disaster plus some man-made ones.
Puerto Rico, in short, could not feed itself before the hurricane hit, let alone after it.
More than a year after Maria made landfall, World Central Kitchen – the nonprofit organization that Andrés founded after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 – and many other organizations are working with small farmers, ranchers, fish co-ops and food-related businesses to rebuild the island's agricultural economy. They want to make it more food secure and help it recover faster when disaster strikes. They all seem to have absorbed an important lesson in the wake of Maria: If they can't trust the territorial government to help after a disaster, they better rely on themselves.
"This is a very rich island in terms of water and in terms of weather to grow things," said Andrés, on a call from Puerto Rico, where he, among other things, gave former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a tour of a farm that World Central Kitchen is helping.
"Puerto Rico should be producing more than 15 percent of its food," the Nobel Peace Prize nominee said. "I think Puerto Rico has the potential to produce 40 percent."
Perhaps a little background would be helpful to understand how Puerto Rico became so reliant on others for food. The reasons are complicated, but they include some 20th-century government initiatives and a population that generally looked down on farming as a profession.
During and after World War II, the U.S. territory decided that, to jump-start its faltering economy, the island needed to move away from agriculture (one rooted in sugar cane and an archaic plantation system) and instead invest in manufacturing. People soon abandoned the countryside, where agriculture was considered peasant work, and moved to the cities. Or they left the island altogether. As a result, by the time Maria made landfall, Puerto Rico was importing about 85 percent of its food and relying heavily on the mainland United States for meats, dairy, vegetables and more. The quality of these products could be low, and the prices high.
It's not surprising, then, that Puerto Ricans have fretted for years that a major disaster could threaten the island's fragile food system, which relies on ships and vulnerable shipping lanes to ferry products to its shores. Maria was that disaster, and Andrés served as a witness to the crippling effects the storm had on the island's ability to feed itself.
Fast forward to 2019: After serving more than 3.7 million meals across the island, World Central Kitchen is trying to help Puerto Ricans serve themselves. WCK's "Plow to Plate" program, which debuted in September on the first anniversary of Maria's landfall, is designed to help small farmers recover from natural disasters. It is also meant to help growers increase their capacity and connect them with distributors and buyers, all of which have, historically, been problems for small Puerto Rican farmers who have had to compete against larger-scale operations.
In the four months since it was launched, Plow to Plate has awarded more than $540,000 in grants to 35 small farmers and food-related businesses to help expand the smallholder agricultural economy on the island, noted Nate Mook, executive director of World Central Kitchen. The money will help recipients build out basic infrastructure, whether greenhouses, irrigation systems or coolers to keep produce fresh until it's sold or delivered.
The recipient list will soon multiply, thanks to the Clinton Global Initiative, which has committed $2 million to World Central Kitchen, Andrés announced Tuesday afternoon from the stage of the CGI Action Network Post-Disaster Recovery meeting in San Juan. World Central Kitchen plans to match CGI's commitment and channel most of the $4 million, over a five-year period, into 213 small farms and other food-related businesses, Mook said. The rest will be invested in agricultural and business skills training, as well as an agritourism program that will place volunteers on farms and businesses around the island.
The announcement of CGI's investment came a day after the Clintons toured Cosechas Tierra Viva, a small farm in eastern Puerto Rico, which is funneling its grant money into modern technology to conserve natural resources and increase yields, according to a recent Forbes story.
On stage at the CGI Action Network meeting, Bill Clinton called Cosechas Tierra Viva "amazing" and "impressive." Its owners, the former president said, "basically said that they want to bring the internet of things to small farmers. ... Little family farmers could be just as productive as big ones because of technology."
Andrés is more modest in what he hopes WCK's involvement will mean for agriculture in Puerto Rico. Yes, he thinks the island has the potential to grow 40 percent of its food, but Andrés also supports the Puerto Rican government's goal to reduce imported food from 85 percent to 70 percent. He also wants to help diversify the crops grown on the island and introduce plants, such as a variety of breadfruit, that can withstand pests, droughts and other acts of nature.
But make no mistake, Andrés said: When a hurricane like Maria hits, all of the island's crops are going to be wiped out. The key, he added, is to build resiliency into the system. One way is to develop hydroponic farms, which could be dismantled and placed in weatherproof containers ahead of a storm, Andrés said. Such farms would not have to start over from scratch and, more important, they could begin feeding locals soon after a disaster.
"It's not just one answer that covers it," Andrés said. "It's a bunch of little things that happen to help Puerto Rico move forward."
One of World Central Kitchen's more forward-thinking moves is to fund small farms that also have kitchens on site. These farms will be strategically located across the island. They will serve a purpose when the next major storm hits Puerto Rico, Andrés said. Their kitchens will be quickly transformed into relief operations to feed hungry Puerto Ricans – just like in 2017, but without all the chaos and improvisation.