On the Ground in Ukraine With World Central Kitchen | Civil Eats

On the Ground in Ukraine With World Central Kitchen

Feeding Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. (Photo credit: World Central Kitchen)

April 18, 2022 update: World Central Kitchen CEO posted on Twitter that a Russian missile strike destroyed the group’s kitchen in Kharkiv on April 16, injuring four staff members. The next day, Chef José Andrés confirmed and shared that the team had already opened a new kitchen in the city.

“The situation changes day by day,” World Central Kitchen (WCK) CEO Nate Mook said from his hotel in Lviv, Ukraine, when I finally reached him just before 9:00 p.m. Eastern European Time on March 10. Since leaving WCK headquarters in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, Mook first helped set up stations to feed Ukrainian refugees at border crossings in Poland, then entered Ukraine to support WCK teams serving meals to people stuck in vehicles as they waited in long lines—sometimes for as long as of 20 hours—to get into Poland.

Finally, he arrived in Lviv, which, he said, has become a sort of “humanitarian center,” as Ukrainians flee cities in the East that are under assault by Russian forces, some of which no longer have power, food, or water. Some families are treating Lviv as a rest stop on their journey out of the country; others are sticking around to see if they can wait out the conflict there.

Residents are doing what they can to fortify their neighborhoods, and the city is wrapping statues to protect historic landmarks from potential destruction, but war has not yet come to Lviv, he said, and the city is mostly functional. “It’s a very strange, surreal place right now because on the one hand, it is calm and there is this semblance of normalcy, and grocery stores, coffee shops, and restaurants are open until curfew,” he said. “And at the same time, the city is being inundated with evacuees from all over the country that are sleeping wherever they can sleep, and there’s a lot of need. As more and more Ukrainians flood in, there’s not that much more room and people are living all over the place.”

The day we spoke, Mook visited a veterinary university that had been turned into a makeshift shelter and a gym where people were camped out on the squash court. And he was worried about the weather forecast for the next few days, which predicted temperatures of 10 °F below zero. “I don’t know how that shifts things where families might decide to hold off [evacuating] because they don’t want to get stuck out in the cold,” he said, “That’s a terrible situation.”

Since it was founded by Chef José Andrés in Haiti in 2010, WCK has served food to people in a wide range of crisis situations, from the Navajo Nation during the early months of the pandemic to the mudslides that hit Petrópolis, Brazil last month, to the massive migration of Afghan refugees fleeing the country and arriving in Spain and Qatar beginning in August 2021.

Here’s more of what Mook had to say about the organization’s efforts to get hot meals to people on the ground in Ukraine.

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Tell me about the people you’re encountering and what the need for food looks like.

Families are exhausted. Many of them, when they get to Lviv, have been traveling for well over 24 hours, and sometimes much longer. They don’t have very much with them; they’re generally carrying like one suitcase, their kids, their pets. There’s a lot of need for support. We’re often that first moment for them to receive a hot meal.

That’s what we’re focused on here: that when these families step off the train here in Lviv, even when they end up in an accommodation center, that they have a hot plate of food.

Even if the families have money—which is a real challenge because bank account access is very difficult—it’s not like they can eat out or buy groceries because they have nowhere to prepare any food. We’re delivering to over 50 locations here in Lviv and serving close to 15,000 meals a day.

Some of the families will then continue their journey and try to cross the border into Poland, Moldova, Romania, or Hungary. Some of them will stay put here in the West hoping for things to quiet down or for there to be a ceasefire or some sort of withdrawal of Russian forces. It’s a rapidly changing, evolving situation. Every day is different. In one shelter, for example, we started serving them about 50 meals [per day]. That went up to 100, then 200. Then they called last night and said, “We’ve got 800 people here,” so our team jumped into action.

It really is tragic and shocking—but amazing how people are opening up their homes and businesses. The outpouring of support is amazing, and the Ukrainian spirit is so strong despite all of the tragedy.

Are you having trouble getting food supplies in to make the meals?

We are having challenges primarily because of the scale of what we’re doing. We’ve set up a corridor; we’ve got trucks coming in every day from Poland. We have six trucks arriving tonight, and we have warehouse spaces here in Lviv already, so we’re starting to stockpile food. We’re starting to get things set and to provide food to our restaurant partners. I think we have 10 kitchens now active in Lviv cooking. Making sure those kitchens are well-stocked is a priority. Things can change very quickly. The Poland border could get much more locked down or access to food and commercial trucking could stop in the West if some of the fighting kicks up over here.

Can you give me an example of an individual or a family you’ve encountered that really stood out to you.

There are so many. There’s a new train station that just opened up here because the main central railway station is so inundated. We were starting to provide hot meals there. It was just overwhelmed with people coming off the trains as they figured out their next steps. The first night we were there, the officials there asked if we could drive a family to one of the registration centers because there were no more buses that night. “Of course,” I said.

We did two trips. First, we drove the mother and her two kids, and then we drove the grandparents—three generations there together. The husband stayed back to fight, as many men here in Ukraine are doing, to defend their country. We were talking to the grandfather who told us that they were from the city of Dnipro in the east; he said he had to flee when he was two years old, during World War II. He said now he’s having to flee his home for the second time. He was devastated that this is happening all over again. There’s a sense of tragedy.

We met a young woman who had come from Kyiv, and she worked in advertising. She had a good job, she’d just moved into a new apartment, and she was excited about decorating it. Just normal things that we all do. And now she had to flee. She has no idea what’s going to happen with her work. She has no idea if she’s ever going to see her apartment again. There are so many heartbreaking stories of people whose lives have been turned upside down.

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There are so many women and children here. There are really no words for it. The men are staying and serving. And the burden [is] on the women to carry all of the family and the kids and the pets and everything and to figure out what they’re going to do next; to try to figure out how to get across the border or not and where they’re going to live?

Tell me about some of the meals you’ve been serving.

We’re working with an incredible network of Ukrainian chefs and restaurants and kitchens here. They’re deciding what meals to make, which is really how it should be. I was in the kitchen today and our chefs there were preparing all sorts of different things. They were doing a beef bechamel, some pulled pork. They had chicken thighs, chicken wings. All sorts of grains: They love bulgur here, and rice and buckwheat. And lots of vegetables and salads.

One of the big things that we’ve been making, especially at the train station, is a bograch soup. It’s kind of like a goulash, with potatoes, onions, carrots, and beef. It’s a very hearty, tasty, warm stew, which is perfect because the nights are so cold and families are arriving at 1:00 or 3:00 in the morning and it’s freezing out and this hot bowl of soup is probably the first hot meal they’ve had in a day or two and sometimes longer, depending on where they’re coming from. It’s comfort food—that’s what we’re trying to provide.

WCK has been on the ground since the beginning. Have you been seeing a lot of support for the work you’re doing?

I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people. People are hosting fundraisers, they’re hosting dinners for us. It is amazing to see chefs and restaurants come together. We couldn’t do what we do without support. We’re not funded by governments or big institutions. It’s the people that power World Central Kitchen, and we’re able then support those chefs in places like Kharkiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Odessa, and also obviously the work that we’re doing here in Lviv and on the borders in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Moldova.

We need people to care about what’s going on in Ukraine and for them to understand the suffering and the devastation to people’s lives. The worst thing that can happen is we get distracted and we stop caring and we forget about it, right? We need to make sure that the world doesn’t forget, because otherwise the atrocities will continue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We send out our calls for peace, for the safety of those who will suffer most in war, and for the wisdom of world leaders. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and their efforts to remain a free and democratic nation. Some meaningful ways to consider supporting the people there now, particularly a free press, are listed here, here, and here. As noted, World Central Kitchen has people on the ground in Poland, Romania, and inside Ukraine, and you can donate to support their efforts to feed people in this humanitarian crisis.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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