Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Human Rights Awards Interview with Nate Mook, Executive Director of World Central Kitchen

World Central Kitchen
UNA-NCA Community Human Rights Award

Interviewer: Nicolas Wicaksono, UNA-NCA Member

In anticipation of the United Nations Association – National Capital Area’s Human Rights Award ceremony, the association interviewed awardee World Central Kitchen (WCK). In 2018, WCK worked in 13 natural or man-made disasters across Africa, the Americas, and Africa, serving warm nutritious meals to vulnerable populations, helping them develop ‘clean cooking’ skills, and building their resilience against disasters. Below is a profile of the WCK’s work, as informed by an interview with executive director Nate Mook, who will be receiving the award on behalf of the organization.


When a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the international community responded swiftly by providing humanitarian aid worth tens of millions of dollars. Despite this encouraging display of goodwill, José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, noticed a troubling trend: local producers of rice and other food products were rapidly losing their businesses as the US flooded the country with free or subsidized food aid.

The harm of good intentions offered a sobering lesson on the importance of empowering communities to take ownership over recovery efforts. For Nate Mook, who was supporting Andrés in Haiti at that time, helping local communities develop their own ability and systems for cooking nutritious foods is key.

By 27th birthday, Mook had already founded or co-founded three technology-based companies. His tech-savviness and proficiency with media eventually helped him transition to a career in storytelling, where he produced numerous video projects throughout the world, including in humanitarian crises in Iraq, Haiti, and Somalia. Besides the general shortages of food in many of these contexts, Mook began observing a profound irony: cooking and food were poisoning people when they should really be nourishing people and supporting vibrant livelihoods. Billions of people globally lack food security, and many cook in ways that create harmful side effects, such as toxins produced by burning charcoal or environmental harms from cutting trees down for wood. 

In Mook’s view, food security is a linchpin for the many human rights issues that the international community cares about. Nutrition and health can themselves be considered human rights, but food insecurity can also have knock-on effects that impede on other rights. “Cooking touches everything,” Mook emphatically asserts. For example, “cooking is education because if girls have to go out and collect firewood everyday … so the mom can cook over a wood fire, then they’re not going to school. If trees are cut down to make [firewood], then food is [harming] the environment.”

Indeed, Mook notes that the natural disaster itself is often not the most lethal part of a humanitarian crisis. Rather, as communities seek to survive and recover from the damage, deep inequities in their abilities to access essential resources like food are often revealed. Existing problems with how resources are managed, such as the presence of food deserts, are often the main culprits behind casualties. Mook therefore sees providing food security to the most vulnerable populations as supporting both people’s immediate survival and broader socio-economic equality.

At the same time, essential to a person’s dignity is the understanding that they, too, have their own aspirations, needs, and agency. Thus, critical to World Central Kitchen’s work is building local communities’ own long-run resilience and ability to find solutions to the challenges they face. For example, as water and electricity began returning to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, WCK began winding down their provision of meals. Instead, WCK began distributing monetary grants to help local producers sell their products and to support the development of domestic markets.  After a recent hurricane devastated Moore’s Island in the Bahamas, WCK worked with local community leaders to identify the main barrier to food security: a lack of functioning docks. In addition to distributing meals, WCK worked to import supplies of lumber and helped rebuild several docks, allowing the island’s own food supplies to flow more effectively.

Of course, as an organization working to respond rapidly to humanitarian disasters, WCK also has an extensive infrastructure to provide short-term palliative aid. Even so, WCK innovates on traditional humanitarian aid models by providing nutritious cooked meals. As Mook explains, typical humanitarian responses to food crises often involves the mass distribution of generic pre-package food stuffs which often amount to little more than “junk foods.” On the other hand, in every disaster, WCK’s staff, including a nutritionist on staff, carefully identify local cultural norms to ensure that the food they cook are appropriate for local communities. Additionally, WCK chefs have mastery over a broad range of recipes given that the locally-available ingredients vary greatly by location. This model, Mook argues, ought to be the new standard.

WCK’s method of supporting food security is not without challenges. Because of the organization’s focus on specific local contexts, each disaster WCK’s addresses will be unique, and there are few models that can be readily transferred from one context to another. This means that WCK often has to learn “on the go” when a disaster strikes. Additionally, the new model of food aid will take time to become normalized and scaled among more established actors working in this field. Nonetheless, Mook believes that WCK’s work will in time become more widely-known and adopted. Indeed, there is cause for optimism, as Mook has observed some progress on this in the past two years.

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