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World Central Kitchen, led by a humanitarian chef, has fed crisis zones for years

José Andrés unloads food packages delivered by World Central Kitchen in Kherson, Ukraine in November 2022.
Efrem Lukatsky
/
AP
José Andrés unloads food packages delivered by World Central Kitchen in Kherson, Ukraine in November 2022.

The aid group World Central Kitchen said Tuesday that it is pausing its efforts to feed Palestinians in Gaza after seven of its workers were killed by an Israeli strike.

The nonprofit said in a statement that the team was hit while leaving a warehouse where they had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid brought to Gaza by sea, a route that World Central Kitchen helped establish just last month.

The organization said the convoy had been traveling in a deconflicted zone, in armored cars branded with their logo and after coordinating movements with Israel's military, which now says it will conduct an investigation of the incident "at the highest levels." Erin Gore, the CEO of World Central Kitchen, called it a "targeted attack."

"This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war," she said.

The U.S.-based organization, which was founded by celebrity chef José Andrés and his wife Patricia in 2010, delivers food to people on the front lines of natural and humanitarian disasters around the world.

It has been working on the ground in the region since Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and killed more than 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government. Israeli's military response in Gaza has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, displaced an estimated 1.7 million and left the territory on thebrink of famine.

WCK said last week that it had provided some 42 million meals to people in Gaza over 175 days, calling the situation there "the most dire we've ever seen or experienced in our 15 year history."

"More and more people, particularly children, are dying of starvation," Gore and Andrés said in a joint statement. "We've known for months that famine is imminent and the situation is getting worse."

With food scarce and malnutrition rising, international experts have warned that some 30% of Gaza's population is already facing "catastrophic" levels of hunger and that northern Gaza could officially see famine anytime between now and May.

World Central Kitchen isn't the only organization working to get food into Gaza, where aid deliveries are severely limited by Israeli border restrictions, logistical challenges and ongoing fighting. But it has played a major role in the humanitarian response, including sending two shipments of hundreds of tons of food to Gaza by sea.

The second such shipment — stocked with shelf-stable items like rice, canned vegetables and proteins, as well as dates in honor of Ramadan — left Cyprus on Saturday. The Cypriot foreign ministry said Tuesday that some 100 tons of aid had been unloaded in Gaza before WCK announced it was pausing its operations in the enclave, and the remaining 240 tons would be returned to Cyprus, according to the Associated Press.

Just days ago, WCK vowed it would keep pushing to get food into Gaza "until there is substantial aid getting in via land." Now those plans are up in the air — it says it will be "making decisions about the future of our work soon."

In the meantime, here's what else to know about the organization:

WCK brings food to the front lines of disasters

People line up for food prepared by a World Central Kitchen worker in Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine in December 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP
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AP
People line up for food prepared by a World Central Kitchen worker in Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine in December 2022.

Andrés is a Spanish-American chef known for his numerous U.S. restaurants, PBS travel series and humanitarian work of over a decade.

He traveled to Haiti after it was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010, cooking for displaced people in camps — an ad hoc relief mission that helped set World Central Kitchen in motion.

WCK has responded to a long list of natural and man-made disasters ever since, working with local partners on the ground.

It served more than 20,000 meals in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and another 3.7 million across Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, for which Andrés was named the James Beard humanitarian of the year in 2018 (seven years after winning its "outstanding chef" award).

He told NPRthat same year that he expected to see more chefs getting involved in disaster response, since "restaurant people" are particularly well suited to managing chaos.

"What we are very good at is understanding the problem and adapting," he said. "And so a problem becomes an opportunity ... We're practical. We're efficient. And we can do it quicker, faster and better than anybody."

The organization has grown substantially over the years and expanded its efforts to focus not only on disaster response but resilience training and longer-term community needs, including opening a culinary school in Port-au-Prince several years after the earthquake that started it.

It has fed survivors of major wildfires in California and Hawaii, federal workers in D.C. during the 2019 government shutdown and stranded cruise ship passengers during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, throughout which it provided food for front line workers and other vulnerable groups in the U.S. as well as Spain, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic.

It delivered hot meals and fresh produce to a Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood after 10 people were killed in a mass shooting at a supermarket, and distributed food after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas.

More recently, WCK provided more than 20 million meals to people impacted by the dual earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last April. And it has responded to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine by providing millions of meals to people there, first in hard-hit population centers and neighboring countries, and increasingly in more remote and vulnerable areas.

This is not the first time WCK has lost workers in a conflict zone

Workers hug on Tuesday after recovering the bodies of World Central Kitchen staff who were killed by Israeli air strikes in Rafah, Gaza.
Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Workers hug on Tuesday after recovering the bodies of World Central Kitchen staff who were killed by Israeli air strikes in Rafah, Gaza.

World Central Kitchen has lost workers before.

Several team members have been killed in Ukraine in recent years, according to the organization.

It said in June that a 60-year-old volunteer named Igor was killed when Russian shelling hit his apartment building in Kharkiv, and that two other volunteers, Sardor and Viktoria, had been killed in a strike in Chuhuiv the previous July. (The group only identified them by their first names.)

Andrés told NPR's Morning Edition in December that WCK had lost a total of six people in Ukraine.

"As a cook, as a chef, when I founded this organization, I never expected that this will happen," he said. "And I almost wanted to pull World Central Kitchen immediately out of Ukraine. But the locals told me: 'José, You cannot leave. We need you. We need your organization.'"

While conflict zones are inherently dangerous, the organization has also faced criticism over its safety record in the past.

In December, Bloomberg published a story alleging — among other accusations — that Andrés looked the other way on matters of staff safety, including demanding that staff send a food truck into parts of Turkey that local officials had declared "no-gos" due to landslides.

Andrés told NPR that disaster and war zones come with risks, and the organization doesn't "push anybody to go."

"Obviously, it's people that maybe they don't feel safe doing this job, but then they shouldn't be in these kind of humanitarian situations," he added. "But from there to say that José Andrés puts people in danger — I'd never be able to tell anybody to do what I'm not willing to do on my own."

The organization has won awards and faced upheaval

World Central Kitchen brought food to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, one of many natural disasters to which it's responded.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
World Central Kitchen brought food to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, one of many natural disasters to which it's responded.

WCK has earned plenty of accolades for its work over the years, but has also recently weathered a string of scandals.

Andrés was awarded the 2015 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama and has twice been named one of TIME's most influential people, among them. A handful of Democratic lawmakers nominated WCK and Andrés himself for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year.

The nonprofit — which operates on non-governmental contributions — has grown exponentially since its founding. It brought in more than $500 million in contributions and grants in 2022, which the New York Times reports was a fourfold increase from the year before.

While WCK gets perfect scores on watchdog sites like Charity Navigator and Charity Watch, there have been some concerns and criticisms raised recently about where exactly that money is going — including from within the organization itself.

WCK announced last June that as it was spending some $2 million a day in Ukraine, it "learned of suspected instances of fraud" and commissioned a law firm to investigate. It ultimately confirmed instances of fraud that amounted to several million dollars, which the organization called "unacceptable, but still represents a tiny percentage of the $432 million we spent feeding people impacted by war."

It acknowledged it could have invested more in its internal operations to discover "bad actors," and said it was making changes among personnel and partners in both Ukraine and Turkey as a result — as well as implementing additional safeguards to combat fraud, like an anonymous tip line.

The organization has also grown in size, now counting thousands of volunteers and 94 employees, according to 2022 filings.

Humanitarian leaders are condemning the strike

United Nations staff members gather Tuesday around a World Central Kitchen car that was hit by an Israeli strike in Deir al-Balah in Gaza.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
United Nations staff members gather Tuesday around a World Central Kitchen car that was hit by an Israeli strike in Deir al-Balah in Gaza.

WCK said the seven workers killed in the Israeli strike included a Palestinian and citizens of Australia, Poland, the United Kingdom and Canada — with one a dual citizen of the U.S.

U.S. and foreign leaders as well as international organizations are offering their condolences and condemnations, and calling for an independent investigation into the Israeli military strike.

Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) — which has lost at least 176 employees in Gaza — said the organization provides "much needed food assistance to a starving population."

He said humanitarian workers are #NotATarget, a hashtag that other human rights groups and public officials are using in their posts about the attack.

Andrés wrote on X that he is heartbroken and grieving for the loved ones of those killed, whom he described as "people ... angels."

"The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing," he said. "It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon. No more innocent lives lost. Peace starts with our shared humanity. It needs to start now."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.