Just a few days before Jeff Bezos launched into space, chef José Andrés got an invite to come and watch the Texas blast-off, along with Nate Mook, the CEO of his hunger and disaster relief organization, World Central Kitchen. From a viewing tower with binoculars, they watched the world’s richest man’s 10-minute journey into the atmosphere and back. But the highlight for them came in a press conference afterward when Bezos presented Andrés with $100 million, which he will put toward his non-profit.
“We knew very little about the details of all of this. It was all a big surprise,” Mook says of the lead-up to the trip. “I don’t know how much in advance it had all been planned out. It all came together very last minute.”
The donation will be an enormous boost for World Central Kitchen, which has gained attention for feeding fresh-cooked meals to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, out-of-work federal employees during the 2019 government shutdown, and hospital workers during India’s Covid surge. Just five years ago, the organization was bringing in less than $700,000 in donations. That number has skyrocketed (no pun intended) in recent years alongside Andrés’s celebrity. In 2019, the non-profit raised nearly $30 million, and last year during the pandemic, the number exploded to around $250 million, largely through individual donations. World Central Kitchen used those funds to provide more than 35 million meals across the country last year—more than 250,000 a day at the peak of Covid—in large part by providing grants to struggling restaurants.
“We put close to $150 million directly into the hands of small local restaurants,” Mook says. “Prior to the stimulus bill and the Restaurant Relief Fund being released, we were probably the single largest stimulus to restaurants in the United States.”
The additional $100 million from Bezos comes with no strings attached for how it can be spent. Andrés and World Central Kitchen are still thinking about the exact ways they’ll put the money to use—it’s been less than a week after all—but Mook says there are currently three big-picture priorities. As Andrés said in his acceptance speech: “This award itself cannot feed the world on its own, but this is the start of a new chapter for us, to allow us to think beyond the next hurricane… Now is the time to think really big.”
The first goal for World Central Kitchen is figuring out more systemic solutions to addressing food insecurity and inequality, especially after disasters. “We saw families standing in line for food for hours and hours and hours,” Mook says of their pandemic relief efforts. “It was a big wake up call around the systems that need to be fixed.”
Second, Andrés wants to double down on one of the original missions of World Central Kitchen: bringing clean-cooking to impoverished communities around the world. Mook explains that 3 billion people across the globe still cook with “dirty fuels” like charcoal and wood, leading to millions of deaths each year. The issue also ties into other environmental and economic issues: “When people chop down the forrest to make charcoal to cook with, you lose the tree coverage which leads to soil erosion, which impacts the watersheds and you can’t grow anything anymore,” Mook explains.
And lastly, World Central Kitchen is looking even more globally in the years to come to tackle hunger. Mook says there are 45 countries on the brink of or already dealing with famine, and starvation and hunger has been exacerbated because of Covid. That’s subsequently led to refugee crises in many parts of the world.
“The money itself isn’t going to solve that problem, right? The scale of that problem is so large,” Mook says. “But can it be catalytic? Can it get more folks engaged and involved in the fight against hunger? Can it push governments to step up as well? That’s an area that José feels very passionate about.”
Mook says Andrés and Bezos had previously crossed paths at a couple of conferences, and that Jeff and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez were well aware of World Central Kitchen and Andrés’s work.
Andrés apparently is also quite interested in Bezos’s work, particularly when it comes to space. “I’m sure in the back of his mind, José was secretly hoping maybe there’d be an extra spot for him to jump on. He would certainly love to go into space at some point,” Mook says. “Maybe some day in the future, but José’s got a lot of work for him down here at the moment on the ground.”