George Washington Today talks to the university’s Commencement speaker about his humanitarian work across the globe.
Before José Andrés takes center stage Sunday as speaker at the university’s Commencement ceremony, George Washington Today spoke with the acclaimed activist and chef about his work to eradicate hunger worldwide and how students can get involved.
Q: You have done humanitarian work on hunger and nutrition issues and cooking safety throughout the world. What are some of the biggest global challenges today?
A: In Haiti and in many countries around the world, one of the biggest issues we face is that people don’t have access to clean cooking technologies. Most people use wood or dung, which is not only harmful to the environment but causes so many health issues because of the smoke it emits. Investing in cleaner technologies can help alleviate so many issues. So this is really important. And here at home, I think one of our biggest challenges is childhood hunger. We are one of the leading countries in the world, but we have a lot of children who go hungry. We need to find solutions to improve our food system so this doesn’t happen. Also, we need to find a way to bring healthier food options to the food deserts of America.
Q: Specifically, you founded World Central Kitchen after a visit to Haiti. Could you talk about the nonprofit organization's mission, and what prompted you to create it?
A: I was in the Cayman Islands when the earthquake hit, and I felt I had to do something. I called up some friends, and we went to Haiti with about 15 to 20 solar cook stoves. We visited different villages cooking for people and showing them this amazing technology using the power of the sun. It was on that first visit that I fell in love with Haiti, the people and the culture. The people of Haiti don’t want out pity, they want our respect. So I founded World Central Kitchen with this in mind, a way for me to help and to invest in solutions instead of throwing money at the problem.
Q: Through the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, you have raised awareness of the risks of traditional stoves in developing countries. How significant is this issue worldwide?
A: I believe a cook stove can be the heart of humanity. Our food system is so interconnected in ways that maybe people cannot imagine. A simple cook stove in developing countries can mean that young boys and girls can go to school instead of spending their days gathering charcoal or wood for something so basic as cooking. In America and in developed countries, we can turn on a flame in a matter of seconds, but in many places around the world fire and cooking is a big issue. A clean cook stove has the potential to feed many people at a low-energy cost and help reduce issues of deforestation, which is becoming a big problem in places like Haiti. In areas that suffer from deforestation, rains cause landslides that wash away the fertile soil and the opportunity for agriculture. When the soil is swept into the ocean, fish, reefs and other sea life are harmed. So just consider what a simple clean cook stove can do. The possibilities are endless.
Q: You've served as chairman of both D.C. Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen. How do these organizations benefit their communities?
A: I’ve been involved with DC Central Kitchen for over 20 years. When I first arrived in Washington, my business partner Rob Wilder introduced me to the amazing work of the organization and its founder Robert Egger. Right away, I was amazed at the work they were doing, distributing food and giving culinary training to help put people on a new path in life. I've worked with them for many years and have become chairman emeritus. Robert is an amazing visionary, and through his work, he has touched and changed so many lives. When he told me about creating the same model in Los Angeles with the LA Kitchen and asked me to join him as chairman of the board, I couldn’t say no. Right now we are laying the groundwork to get the program started in LA later this year. I know that LA Kitchen will have a huge impact. His work has always been an inspiration that pushed me to be better.
Q: How can students get involved in hunger and nutrition humanitarian work?
A: In Washington, there are so many opportunities for young students to get involved in hunger issues that they are passionate about. We have amazing hunger relief organizations, like DC Central Kitchen, Martha’s Table and Capital Area Food Bank, where you can volunteer your time. Also, there are advocacy organizations doing amazing work, including my friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who each year spearhead national Food Day. Also, GW has an amazing Urban Food Task Force, where my friend Diane Knapp, the wife of the university’s president, has been really active. The university has amazing food initiatives so students have a lot of opportunities to become involved.
The Luther W. Brady Art Gallery cases on the second floor of the Media and Public Affairs Building features “Taste of Spain: Cuisine and Collecting,” an exhibit illustrating Commencement speaker José Andrés’ humanitarian work and culinary influence.