In April, World Central Kitchen, founded by chef José Andrés, announced Chefs for America, a program to provide 1 million free meals to those experiencing food insecurity. The nonprofit organization, which is known for feeding people in need following natural disasters, would partner with over 1,000 restaurants and subsidize a pre-set number of $ 10 meals, which WCK would help distribute in various U.S. neighborhoods. The plan was twofold: Feed the hungry, and pay struggling restaurants to help them stay in business. But at least one restaurant has chosen to end its partnership with WCK: La Morada — a Oaxacan restaurant in the Bronx, New York, that’s owned by undocumented immigrants — recently announced it would no longer be working with WCK, citing the organization’s affiliation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its “ties to gentrifying forces.”
In a statement, La Morada says it ended its partnership with WCK on May 8 because of political differences. The restaurant references WCK’s open praise of the Department of Homeland Security and ICE in 2017, when the nonprofit was providing aid in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. In a profile in the Washington Post from October 2017, Andrés detailed how members of Homeland Security Investigations helped him distribute food to remote areas of the island. “I became friends with them,” he said. “We saw that they were going to the very hard-hit areas and that they were going with their cars halfway empty. They said we could bring food, so we began giving them food. They began taking thousands of sandwiches.” He also thanked the DHS for its work on Twitter.
The Department of Homeland Security oversees ICE, an organization founded in 2003 to enforce laws around illegal immigration. It is the organization responsible for the detainment camps at the U.S. borders, which have become notorious for their human rights abuses, deaths, and now, the spread of COVID-19. Notably, ICE has also been responsible for rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants in Puerto Rico, separating families and keeping people in confinement with little information on how to fight their cases. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and under ICE’s purview.
Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, tells Eater that he “vehemently disagrees” with La Morada’s assessment that WCK has a working relationship with ICE. He reiterated what was reported in the Washington Post, that HSI personnel offered to drive meals to remote areas for about two or three weeks, but “I will say flat out, World Central Kitchen has never collaborated with or supported any work of ICE. I think José has been a very public vocal advocate for immigrant rights and undocumented communities… The narrative that is being shared is not a correct one in terms of World Central Kitchen collaborating with ICE.” The point was reiterated in a statement from WCK, which reads: “it is absolutely untrue that WCK works with ICE or supports its agenda,” and states that the organization is “providing millions of fresh, nourishing meals across the county to the nation’s most vulnerable people, including undocumented communities.”
Yajaira Saavedra, owner of La Morada, tells Eater that social justice and fighting for immigrants has been a part of the restaurant’s mission since it opened in 2009, activism that’s been covered by Eater, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. So when she discovered that World Central Kitchen had worked with DHS, it was obvious to Saavedra that she couldn’t continue to work with them. “The fact that José Andrés, someone who has a lot of privilege, comes from a wealthy class, is a citizen, and comes from a lot of resources that we don’t have — that we have to go and teach [WCK], that’s very overwhelming,” she told Eater. “I feel like they need to take more bold steps before they claim to be pro-immigrant.”
La Morada received $ 10 per meal to make 250 meals a day for WCK, approximately one quarter of the total meals it makes in a day in its current work as a soup kitchen. The statement also notes that La Morada attempted to dialogue with WCK about its involvement with HSI, but “WCK chose to nitpick at the events there and deny knowledge of ICE policing agencies, how they intersect, and of the harm they all cause,” while also “display[ing] their founder as a model immigrant in order to score diversity and acceptance points.” Saavedra says it didn’t make any sense to her that an organization claiming to be pro-immigrant wouldn’t see why having any association with ICE was bad. “I just feel like WCK was so focused on branding as a white savior organization before actually doing the work.”
World Central Kitchen has largely framed its relationship with Homeland Security as one of practicality — HSI had cars and access to remote areas of Puerto Rico, WCK had food. In its statement, WCK says “HSI simply took WCK sandwiches to distribute to communities in [hard-hit] areas, as did many local and state groups during the time WCK served 3.7 million meals in Puerto Rico.” But La Morada writes that by relying on HSI, WCK backhandedly supported its work. “It is disconcerting to witness WCK’s indifference to how their aid efforts might benefit from and amplify historically harmful, violent and oppressive systems and institutions.” In other words, those cars were only available because of the existence of harmful organizations like ICE.
José Andrés has certainly been vocal in his support of immigrant rights. Recently, the chef, who immigrated to the U.S. from Spain in 1991, has been part of a campaign with the NAACP called All of Us to promote positive image of immigrants in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, he wrote an op-ed for Eater about his experience as an immigrant, and said “undocumented or not, people, with their hard work, have earned their right to belong. As a society, we cannot be lying to ourselves: If we are using those people, undocumented, it is because we are benefiting from their hard work. It’s almost a form of slavery in the 21st century.” In 2017, Eater declared him the Icon of the Year, noting his criticism of the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria.
But Andrés’s career has not been solely one of charity, and his positions when it comes to his business ventures tell a story of an ever-expanding restaurant empire that doesn’t always treat employees well. In 2018, his restaurant group ThinkFoodGroup urged voters in Washington, D.C., to vote no on Initiative 77, which would have raised the tipped minimum wage, saying it “will only make the current wage disparity more extreme and place downward pressure on small business margins,” even though research says workers benefit from a raised tipped wage. He was also accused of “systemically” underpaying workers at his Manhattan restaurant Mercado Little Spain, which is located in the Hudson Yards development that was financed with money siphoned by developers from funds meant to alleviate urban poverty. Andrés says employee underpayment was due to a “glitch” in the payroll software.
La Morada’s criticisms were not only about ICE. The restaurant also suggests that WCK was giving preferential treatment, including providing more PPE, to “privileged restaurants,” meaning those that La Morada views as the gentrifiers and developers of the South Bronx. La Morada says it asked WCK about these imbalances, but was told WCK doesn’t discriminate. “What we see is a pretty orchestrated effort by gentrifying businesses, elected officials, and developer interests to gain public recognition as community benefactors while making way for a recovery that to them is founded on the displacement of working class and poor folk,” writes La Morada. For instance, in New York, WCK says it received support from Vista Equity Partners (a private equity company), Audible (owned by Amazon), and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Saavedra says newer restaurants in more gentrified areas of the Bronx were contacted by WCK before more established organizations and restaurants, and that while other restaurants in the area received hand sanitizer and masks from WCK, all she received was a roll of WCK-branded stickers. “How is it that if you’re going to start establishing yourself in the South Bronx, and branding yourself to help the undocumented community, that you didn’t reach out to folks who already doing the ground work?” In a statement, WCK says, “We are actually prioritizing small, independent businesses and have no incentive to withhold any resources.” Mook also said that, while WCK attempted to make sure every restaurant was provided for, “in the early days PPE was very hard to come by for anybody,” and that if any restaurant didn’t get what they needed, it wasn’t intentional.
The South Bronx has seen rapid gentrification in the past few years, with median rent rising 45 percent since 2005, the largest rent raises in the city. According to the 2010 census, the Bronx as a whole is 35.4 percent foreign-born and with 27.3 percent of the population in poverty, though that last statistic is surely different now given that the Bronx has the highest COVID-19 case, hospitalization, and death rates per capita in New York City. Concerns of developers and elected officials using the pandemic as a cover to take advantage of low prices and a strapped population are certainly valid. Issues like poverty, lack of access to health care, and food scarcity “are not new in the South Bronx,” says Saavedra. “Hunts Point is 10 minutes away, Fresh Direct settled down in our neighborhood, and all that food is going into the wealthier parts of Manhattan and other parts of the city rather than feeding people in our neighborhood.”
In its statement, La Morada imagines a better system for mutual aid, in which “resources can be distributed equitably and with the purpose of empowering people in their own communities to support one another,” rather than distributed top-down from an organization like WCK. And while WCK may see its work, however temporary, with HSI as a practical way to expand its charitable mission, La Morada views some of these partnerships as hypocrisies directly contrasting with that mission. By working with WCK, Saavedra argues, immigrant-owned restaurants are asked to become complicit in these partnerships to receive aid, which may be crucial to their business’s survival.
Saavedra says if WCK truly wants to live up to its pro-immigrant message, it can start by apologizing and breaking all ties with ICE, DHS, and the NYPD, organizations she says “are constantly targeting us and killing us.” But more than anything, Saavedra just wants World Central Kitchen to acknowledge it has work to do to gain immigrants’ trust: “They think that just by saying they’re pro-immigrant they shouldn’t check their privilege, and that by offering limited financial help I should just bow down to them.”