Department of Interior employee Anita Gonzales-Evans clutched a floral thank-you note on Wednesday morning, emblazoned with one word: “Gracias.” It shone in the lights of #ChefForFeds Cafe, José Andrés’s emergency kitchen, which he launched today with his humanitarian organization, World Central Kitchen (WCK). Located at the US Navy Memorial Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, the kitchen opened to hundreds of furloughed federal employees and their families 26 days into the longest government shutdown in American history.
Gonzales-Evans was eager to show her gratitude, which goes well beyond the free roasted-fennel/tomato soup. Her eldest child is applying for college, and fear has begun to eclipse what was to be a time of immense pride. If the shutdown continues, she wondered, how will they pay the application fees?
“Today’s the first day for me to pull out my federal ID. And today is my first day to put makeup on. And today is my first day to just feel like a damn person again,” she said. “I had to get out of my house. My house is clean. There’s nothing left to clean.”
The kitchen—similar to those set up by Andrés and WCK to relieve hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and provide meals after the floods in Houston—takes over his private event and pop-up space, ThinkFoodLab (701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW). Volunteers are serving hot lunches and dinners such as toasted ham and cheese or fried-egg sandwiches to federal employees and their families from 11 AM to 6 PM until the shutdown ends, as well as providing food for them to take home. The menu will rotate each day, and WCK has even taken dietary restrictions into account; Wednesday’s lineup included vegan quinoa power bowls and gluten-free soup. While Andrés was not at the cafe’s opening (he’s currently in Puerto Rico with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the launch of Hamilton), Vim & Victor’s Spike Mendelsohn and Himitsu’s Carlie Steiner were among the local culinary talents manning the kitchen.
Andrés tweeted a video from Puerto Rico announcing the #ChefForFeds cafe on Monday. When a Twitter user admonished the chef for equating furloughed employees to disaster victims, dismissing the kitchen as a #Stunt, Andrés responded: “Sorry but I talk to many many one parent mothers with children and they are having a hard time already!….” Many women pushed strollers and clutched infants at Wednesday’s opening.
“I just have to say, when I saw that video that chef Andrés put out, I was in tears, it was so great. It was just so inspiring, I felt like somebody cared about what we’re going through,” said Federal Aviation Administration employee Rebecca (who requested not to reveal her last name). Rebecca stood in the blustery weather more than half an hour before the cafe opened, with sons Emmett and Mina huddled by her side. Fifteen minutes before doors opened, the line snaked beyond the barriers. As a single mother of three, Rebecca said she’s relying on a patchwork of child support—including a Federal Credit Union furlough loan and an unemployment application—to survive the shutdown.
Alana Miller, a civilian with the Coast Guard, brought her daughter Elliotte. She said she feels lucky, like many in line, that her partner’s income is not affected by the shutdown. Nonetheless, she wonders if she should turn down the heat in their home, despite the recent snowstorm and freezing temperatures. The family’s health insurance is under her government plan—what if one of her three kids gets sick? Even so, she thinks of her friends on active duty. On Tuesday, members of the Coast Guard went unpaid for the first time in history.
Thoughts for fellow furloughed comrades were ubiquitous. Cafe volunteer slots are currently full until January 20th, many taken by furloughed federal employees themselves. “I think they feel strongly compelled to serve by being in that situation and going through these tough times. They feel strongly compelled to serve their brothers and sisters,” said Antoine Battle, the communications director for the mayor’s office of volunteerism, ServeDC. Even those who lined up for a warm meal found a way to give. Outfitted with soup and a quinoa bowl, Department of Justice employee Tony Burley promptly gave his meal to a homeless man outside the cafe.
“I’m blessed. I still have a roof over my head, food in my belly, and a place to sleep. So I have the bare necessities, I have family, I have friends. Some people don’t have any of that,” said Burley. “All they have is a place to go to work and a place to go home. So I don’t believe they understand the impact of that.”
Burley hopes both sides of the aisle can understand the pervasiveness of suffering—but the past doesn’t inspire much hope. “This country has a horrible record of empathy and sympathy,” he said. Behind him, a busker sang “End the shutdown” to the tune of “Stand By Me.”
Even though she lives paycheck to paycheck, single mother Rebecca shudders thinking of a coworker unable to pay student loans or continue a dissertation that relies on FAA research. “Pain is pain. Fear is fear. My friends are really hurting, they are really hurting right now,” she said.
Andrés was among the first local restaurant owners to offer free shutdown sandwiches at his restaurants, an echo of his efforts during the 2013 government shutdown. With World Central Kitchen, he served more than 3 million meals in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and spent Thanksgiving in Paradise, California, providing holiday dinners in the wake of the Camp Fire. For his work, he has won multiple humanitarian awards and has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“We’re used to being in disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires. So this is new territory for us. It’s a disaster nonetheless, but it’s a manmade one,” said Nate Mook, executive director of World Central Kitchen.
Gonzales-Evans’s thank-you card remained blank as she finished her soup, but afterward, the words would be easy.
“I wanted to let him know we appreciate what he’s doing. This is very kind of him,” she said of Andrés’s initiative. “For him to step up like that? This is awesome.”