A report by Jean Case for Forbes.
Puerto Rico is Fearlessly Building a More Resilient, and Independent, Society in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria
While all eyes were on Puerto Rico this week as Lin-Manuel Miranda took his Hamilton production to San Juan, there was another dramatic story playing out in streets and communities across Puerto Rico—the story of a remarkable recovery effort helped along by a celebrated American chef following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. I had come to Puerto Rico to witness the work being taken forward by José Andrés and his team at the nonprofit, World Central Kitchen (WCK).
Traveling across the island with WCK, one of our site visits was at the nonprofit, ARECMA in the town of Mariana, nestled at the top of a mountain near where Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Luis Rodriguez Sanchez is the passionate leader of ARECMA, and after a brief introduction, he wasted no time explaining the organization’s mission and why he and others in the community are so committed to their work. “After Hurricane Maria, we learned that we could not rely on government or outsiders to save us,” he said. The community of Mariana is home to about 3,000 people, all of whom were left without clean water and electricity for more than six months, some of whom loss their lives following the devastation there.
“We went to the river each day to collect water that we filtered or boiled to drink,” Luis Rodriguez said. Post Maria, ARECMA, with the help of WCK, has focused on building resilience against future storms by outfitting an off-grid industrial kitchen that provides daily low-cost meals to the community. Like many American citizens in the U.S. protectorate of Puerto Rico, the people of Mariana assumed the federal government would build a rapid response to the natural disaster, but as days ticked by and the relief did not come, the residents of Puerto Rico realized they would have to continue the “neighbor helping neighbor” approach that went into high gear shortly after the hurricane hit, and remains to this day. “We think it is best to assume these powerful storms in the Caribbean are the new normal,” Luis Rodriguez said, “and next time we want to be self-sufficient to weather the storm.”
Today in Mariana, the community center has a rainwater catch system, solar panels and newly planted breadfruit trees, a natural source of rich nutrition. Each day at the community center, citizens know they can rely on a delicious hot meal for as little as $2 a day while they continue the long-term process of rebuilding.
This fearless spirit of “we can do this together!” was present everywhere we went on the island. Chef José Andrés and his WCK team led us to farms, fisheries, and food truck clusters all benefiting from WCK grants since the hurricane struck, including the community center in Mariana. It was Andrés and WCK that sent out an emergency clarion call after Maria struck, and chefs, farmers, and food trucks from across the island responded to help enable an emergency feeding system that to date has served more than 3.7 million meals to those in need. It was also the generosity of Americans from across the nation who saw the devastation and who heard the story of how Andrés jumped into action and generously donated to support his efforts on the ground in Puerto Rico.
Innovation and a fierce commitment to becoming self-sustaining was on display everywhere we went across the island. As Andrés recounted in his riveting book We Fed an Island, about the epic efforts that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he had been shocked when he learned that 85 percent of produce was imported to this tropical region in the years prior to Hurricane Maria, leaving the island especially vulnerable to food insecurity following a natural disaster that closed airports and ports and seriously disrupted distribution systems. And while Andrés at first planned to partner with large, established disaster relief organizations and the U.S. government, he was taken aback to learn that the very NGOs and government entities—whose mission it is to get on the ground to provide relief—were either delayed in their response to the crisis or didn’t prioritize food support in the days immediately following the disaster. So, he let urgency conquer fear and began putting together the local network of chefs, farms, restaurants and other local private sector organizations needed to collaborate to deliver meals to those cut off from a food supply and build the emergency food response system the people of the island needed. And deserved.
Throughout the ordeal, Andrés, his team, and the islanders who jumped in to join the effort recognized that there would be an enduring need to build systems for emergency food response and for sustainability and resiliency against future disasters. They began the “Plow to Plate” program with WCK supporting and partnering with smallholder farms, agricultural organizations, fishing cooperatives and small businesses to build what is today a vibrant network across the island working to improve access to local, fresh produce, meats and seafood, and to reduce the reliance on outsiders and improve the food security of Puerto Rico. This is the big idea WCK and the citizens of Puerto Rico are taking forward, and it is a model for communities across our nation. Since Puerto Rico, Andrés and his WCK team have been on the ground around the world, on the front lines of other disasters that have struck including wildfires, tsunamis, and earthquakes.
These extraordinary response efforts, coupled with the long-term improvements they are inspiring, have led the Washington Post to name Andrés “the new face of disaster relief,” and Andrés was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Witnessing these local, on the ground efforts in Puerto Rico, I felt like I was peeking into the future—one where communities come together in new and innovative ways to build a more sustainable future and to limit vulnerabilities related to food and water access. Like the local residents of a subdivision in the greater San Juan area who are using lawn space and undeveloped lots to grow food like edible flowers, fruit trees and micro greens. “Next time, we’ll be ready to make sure our neighbors have a healthy supply of food. In the meantime, we are also contributing to a more robust supply for the island,” said Gabriel Rodriguez of The Rooftop Garden, who leads neighborhood growing efforts. Next up for the group is the transitioning of tracts of government owned land that are undeveloped, from parks to abandoned lots, to support even more planting. These initiatives are supported by grants from WCK to support the purchase of a new irrigation system and a walk-in cooler that will help with production and facilitate storage.
We also met one young farmer who is driving a movement to encourage even more smallholder farms. Cosechas Tierra Viva, led by Franco Marciano Medina is calling the effort, “The Internet of Farming” as they utilize new technologies and innovations to better conserve natural resources and increase yields for smallholder farmers. Using open source technologies—free, publicly available software—and sensors, they have demonstrated that improved management of small plots can mean an increased financial return for the farmer, while providing the know how that is inspiring the next generation in Puerto Rico to farm their small plots of land. WCK grants provide further support for these efforts by helping to construct a health-compliant post-harvest production system to enable the harvested products to go into markets fully compliant with local and federal regulations.
It is hard to have a healthy ecosystem for plants and trees without pollinators—namely wild, indigenous bees. Maria’s path of destruction included many native species of plants and trees that wild bees rely on and, as a result, the island experienced an 80 percent reduction in the bee population. With funding from WCK, Christian Torres Santana, a bee expert at the Arboretum Dona Ines Park, is constructing new greenhouses as propagation centers for more than 50 species that attract pollinators and distributes them to farmers across the island to help increase production. Thanks to an educational policy unique to Puerto Rico, schools are required to provide 20 hours of “nature curriculum” for students. As a result, the Arboretum has hosted as many as 15,000 students a year to teach them about native species of plants and trees, the importance of pollinators, and the special need to protect and preserve the natural state of the island for the future.
And just as there is recognition of the need to build more sustainability of food supplies on the island, many of Puerto Rico’s fisherman are adapting to more sustainable practices at sea, to ensure a more robust future supply of fresh seafood to feed the island and limit the need to import products from other places. The fisherman we visited with Andrés at Conservacion Conciencia, a local fishing coop where many follow generations of fishing and diving the waters, have a renewed commitment being part of building a bright future for Puerto Rico. WCK funding for the coop will help to ensure the fisherman have what they need to be sustainable in their efforts going forward.
In my new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose, I highlight the remarkable story of Chef José Andrés and his broader work with World Central Kitchen, along with the stories of many other fearless individuals who’ve worked to make a difference around the world. As the principles of Be Fearless demonstrate, for anyone taking a big bet forward, we must be bold, take risks, make failure matter, reach beyond our bubble and let urgency conquer fear—just as Andrés has done on the ground in Puerto Rico. As a result, he has helped save lives and change the way that the island of Puerto Rico thinks about and prepares for the future.