Not since the Great Depression have so many in this country faced the prospect of being unable to put food on their table. And it's not just families trying to feed themselves, farmers, processing plants and supermarkets have all experienced disruptions. Late Friday, President Trump directed $19 billion in relief for farmers and ranchers to maintain the integrity of our food supply chain and to aid local food banks.
To understand the challenges of feeding a nation in the midst of a pandemic, we turned to Chef José Andrés, whose disaster relief organization, World Central Kitchen, has, in the past month, helped make and serve more than 2 million free meals in at least 100 American cities.
Anderson Cooper: Do we have enough food in the U.S.?
José Andrés: We have enough food. We need to be thinking about how are we feeding ourselves and don't take it ever for granted.
José Andrés has been thinking about innovative ways to feed people for decades. First, as a world famous chef and now also as head of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit he founded ten years ago.
Earlier this month we were with him in New York City as he handed out food in Harlem, then checked on one of his kitchens preparing meals for first responders.
José Andrés: A few weeks ago this place would be full.
This is what's left of Mercado Little Spain, a food hall Andrés opened in New York just last year. It's one of 27 restaurants Andrés owns in the U.S. Nearly half of which are now closed, the rest are open for takeout or are being used to help feed the growing number of Americans who are struggling.
José Andrés: We are using a lot of the ingredients we still have here. And we had a lot of lentils and we had a lot of chorizo.
Before coronavirus, Andrés had 1,600 employees. Most have now been furloughed. He's only been able to keep 250 working.
These free meals are delivered to military personnel working in a makeshift hospital nearby. After standing in line, six feet apart, they get boxes of fresh cooked penne bolognese.
Anderson Cooper: Do you know how many people you feed here every day?
José Andrés: Out of this one around 2,000.
Anderson Cooper: 2,000 people?
José Andrés: Yeah. But-- but the number is gonna keep increasing. The good thing for us, Anderson, is that if all of the sudden we need to go up to 10,000 or 20,000 people we are ready. Part of emergencies is to adapt and to adapt by the day. When you talk about food and water people don't want a solution one week from now, one month from now. The solution has to be now. The urgency of now is yesterday.
The "urgency of now" Andrés speaks of is visible all across the country. Food banks are overwhelmed. When this one in San Antonio announced an emergency food distribution earlier this month, more than 10,000 people showed up, their cars filled an enormous parking lot. Each family was given 200 pounds of food — gallons of milk, chicken, fruit, and dry goods, enough to last two weeks.
The nation's largest hunger relief organization, a nonprofit called Feeding America, supports a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 local food pantries. But even with hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and federal aid, they are struggling to meet demand.
Anderson Cooper: In a situation like this, people suddenly see how vulnerable we are or how thin the safety net is for everyone.
José Andrés: We have food banks under the Feeding America umbrella that they've been doing an amazing job. But some of the smaller food banks they've been running out of budget. They don't have more money to buy or they are overwhelmed because they don't have enough volunteers.
Andrés' World Central Kitchen tries to fill, what he calls, "the blindspots:" health care providers in New York. In Washington, D.C., the elderly and homeless who might not be able to get to a food bank.
José Andrés: We need to make sure that we keep showing up every day, sending a very clear message: "We are here for you and we are gonna take care of you."
World Central Kitchen has been taking care of those infected by coronavirus since February. They brought fresh meals to cruise ship passengers quarantined on board the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan, using strict health protocols they'd developed while doing emergency relief operations in Mozambique during a cholera outbreak.
Andrés is vigilant about health precautions, constantly monitoring social distancing and disinfecting everything along the way.
Andrés' goal is far more ambitious than just handing out free meals. He wants the federal government to pay restaurants across America to hire back employees and feed the hungry. To prove it can work, World Central Kitchen is already doing it. They're spending millions of dollars, raised through donations, to partner with more than 400 restaurants.
Anderson Cooper: It keeps people employed in the restaurant delivery people, cooks, and it also serves vulnerable populations.
José Andrés: What we've been doing is use the systems that are already in place. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You only have to change the way you think.
World Central Kitchen has given money to restaurants in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, and dozens of other cities. In Washington, D.C., they are paying this Michelin-star restaurant, Maydan, $10 a meal to feed people in need. Andrés insists the food be nutritious and tasty. Today it's grilled chicken kebobs, carrots and lentils that will be delivered to 80 senior citizens.
José Andrés: We partner with them, we tell them, "Listen, we need you to help us feed this police station, this fire station, this hospital, this elderly home. And we need you to be doing so many meals per day during so many weeks. This is the way for us to be responding so quickly in so many cities at once.
It's a model we first saw him develop in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was unable to provide meals for all those in need, so Andrés began mobilizing existing kitchens, food distributors, and an army of volunteers to prepare and serve meals around the island.
They did it so well, FEMA awarded World Central Kitchen two contracts in Puerto Rico worth $11.5 million.
Now in the midst of this pandemic, Andrés is lobbying Republican and Democratic lawmakers to prioritize food as a national security issue and get restaurants back to work by feeding the hungry.
José Andrés: I do believe that the federal government has to be playing a bigger role. Not throwing money at the problem, but investing into the solutions.
José Andrés: Government has to protect the restaurants because every dollar goes into a restaurant when you dine out, trickles down across the economy in a way no other business does. We are able to pay the farmers, pay the fishermen, and pay the people that do the delivery. And we are able to pay obviously our cooks and our waiters and bartenders.
Anderson Cooper: It's a bigger industry than the airline industry.
José Andrés: Restaurants in America are the DNA of a functioning America. We'll not be an America as we know it if those restaurants don't come back to be part of the American way of life.
Anderson Cooper: You think that's a model that could actually work?
Craig Fugate: Yeah, I think it's the model that will have to work.
Craig Fugate was head of FEMA for eight years under President Obama. He likes the idea of government funding restaurants to help the hungry. We spoke with him via remote interview from Florida.
Anderson Cooper: What would it take to have that system be in place?
Craig Fugate: Well, it'd be pretty straightforward. Local governments would issue the contracts to local vendors to produce meals under their authority to feed people in a disaster. And they would send that to the state. And the state would ultimately send it to FEMA for reimbursement.
The sudden closing of restaurants did more than cost workers their jobs, it created widespread disruption throughout the nation's food supply chain.
Before the pandemic, by one estimate, 24 million cases of food were delivered every day to restaurants, schools and large venues that serve meals. It was usually sent in bulk and to repackage it for sale in grocery stores, takes time and money.
With restaurants closed, demand for butter and cheese has dropped significantly, one reason dairy farmers are dumping as much as three and a half million gallons of milk everyday. And farmers, who can no longer get their products to restaurants and other customers are discarding millions of pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. This newly harvested zucchini and squash has been left to rot in a Florida field.
Anderson Cooper: There's harvests from now through August around the country these next couple months are crucial for the food supply.
José Andrés: I don't believe the food supply is gonna be an issue if we prepare for it. But if the small farmers don't have anybody to sell and all of a sudden they start planting less because seeds cost money. And all of a sudden a few months from now that output of food that we took for granted disappears, there is a little issue we face.
Craig Fugate shares José Andrés' concerns.
Craig Fugate: I don't think we run out of food, per se. But I think being able to get fresh produce, get meats of variety will go away. We may see a lotta grain and cereal-based products filling in as a primary nutrients in the short-run. But definitely if we see big disruptions to the production, particularly the consumables of fresh produce, dairies and milk, poultry operation, eggs and meat, those are what I see as the most vulnerable 'cause they're the most people-intensive.
This past week a meatpacking facility in Colorado, where four workers died from the virus, was closed down. And in South Dakota, a Smithfield Foods pork plant, which produces 18 million servings of pork a day, was also closed. More than 600 employees have tested positive there and at least one worker has died.
Anderson Cooper: What do you want to make sure that people in government are thinking about now, with this crisis when it comes to food supply?
Craig Fugate: Think big. Think worst case scenario. You plan for that. You don't wait for it to happen, or you don't hope it won't happen.
Mike Pence at press conference: Let me just say to all of you that are working in the food industry at every level across the country. Just understand that you are vital.
Vice President Pence recently tried to reassure food industry workers in farms and factories that efforts were being made to keep their workplaces safe.
Mike Pence at press conference: And we need you to continue, as a part of what we call our "critical infrastructure," to show up and do your job.
But by the Department of Agriculture's own statistics, roughly half of hired crop farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. As are many who work in food processing plants. That means despite being an essential part of our critical infrastructure, they are still vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
Craig Fugate: Part of the problem is 'cause they're undocumented and the fear of being deported, they may not be reporting in sick or getting treatment or being isolated. And therefore causing more spread because they're not given the same protection as other workers.
Anderson Cooper: They're also in some cases working shoulder to shoulder in fields or on meat processing plants?
Craig Fugate: Yeah, doing social distancing in a lot of the agriculture operations will be almost impossible.
Anderson Cooper: It's sort of ironic that all of the sudden undocumented immigrants are now considered essential in the United States to feed the rest of us.
Craig Fugate: Yeah, it finally took a pandemic to make people realize without foreign-born workers much of our economy doesn't work.
Anderson Cooper: A situation like this, it highlights problems that already exist in society that people haven't noticed. Suddenly you see things. It's like an x-ray machine.
José Andrés: In moments like this, inequalities manifest themselves exponentially.
José Andrés is an immigrant from Spain. He became an American citizen in 2013. He hopes that when this virus is finally under control, we don't forget all those who kept working to feed the rest of us.
Anderson Cooper: When this is done do you think it changes the way we'll see people?
José Andrés: If we don't have a big explosion of empathy in this country or around the world I don't know when we will.
José Andrés: From now on, we gonna be giving the respect they deserve to the delivery pizza guys, to the women sitting on the supermarket, feeding entire families in the neighborhood only by being there and putting her life at risk. All of the sudden, that immigrant that you thought that maybe you didn't like is the one that has been helping feed your community. All of a sudden we are gonna be more respectful to everyday Americans because now those everyday Americans, in my eyes, they are the heroes that kept America going, that kept America fed.
Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta. Associate producers, Katie Brennan and Kate Morris. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Michael Mongulla.