The United States needs to change the way it thinks about responding to food emergencies in order to quickly get assistance to those who need it, well-known chef José Andrés said at Monday's Agri-Pulse Ag and Food Policy Summit.

Andrés, who owns restaurants throughout the country, founded World Central Kitchen in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti in order to provide fresh, hot meals to victims of the disaster. World Central Kitchen has continued to do the same in response to other disasters, including the COVID pandemic, where "we are on our way to do 40 million meals alone," he said. 

“Very often, we leave people hungry after a hurricane or after an earthquake,” Andrés said. “And sometimes it takes days” to get assistance to those in need.

Andrés made the case that chefs and restaurants need to be “part of the conversation” when it comes to emergency response.

“In emergencies, we can be the ones that react quicker and faster,” he said. “Why? Because we know where the food is. We know where the kitchens are, we know how to gather teams of people, and we're good at distribution.”

Andrés also had some suggestions for USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, which was rolled out in May and has resulted in delivery of nearly 94 million food boxes. “Please, don't give them iceberg lettuce with zero calories,” he said.

Andrés also said the government was slow to start up the program; USDA leaders including Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue have repeatedly praised the Agricultural Marketing Service for standing up the program so quickly after it was announced.

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Andrés was critical that some of the initial contracts went to companies with no experience. USDA seems to have heard that criticism, which died down after the first of the three food box rounds: The latest round of contracts includes one for $114 million to major food distributor Sysco.

The chef had some advice on labor shortages, suggesting a “revolving visa system” that would allow workers to come to the U.S. for harvest and then return to their home countries.

Under a system like that, workers would be able to take the money they earn in the U.S. to strengthen their own communities south of the border, Andrés said. “All of a sudden, you don't have an increase in undocumented immigrants, you have different communities across Central and South America that are thriving,” he said.

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