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José Andrés Supports Puerto Rico Statehood

José Andrés, an award-winning chef, became one of the heroes of Hurricane Maria when he and his crew fed 100,000 people a day in more than a dozen kitchens across the Island.

In his book about that adventure, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, Andrés wrote not only of the work that he and his team accomplished and his ideas for keeping people fed during future disasters, but also of the thoughts and feelings he developed about Puerto Rico during his time there.

“As I looked up to the stars, I began to cry,” he wrote. “I thought the one star that was missing was the Puerto Rican star on the American flag.”

Statehood for Puerto Rico

In his book, Andrés explained that “[t]oday most Puerto Ricans are unhappy with their current political status, and the most popular alternative is statehood, while a minority prefer more autonomy.”

“The most recent poll, just three months before the hurricane, showed a 97 percent majority for statehood, although opponents said the vote was rigged and refused to take part in the poll. Five years earlier, statehood won 61 percent of the vote. Yet Congress will not grant statehood to the island in the foreseeable future because, as with the District of Columbia, Republicans oppose what they see as the creation of two new Senate votes aligned firmly with the Democrats.”

When Andres says “poll,” he is referring to the 2017 plebiscite, which is the most recent status vote. Another plebiscite is scheduled for November 3, 2020.

“Whatever happens,” he continued, “the status quo cannot survive.”

Nutrition assistance in Puerto Rico

Andres discusses the economic hardships Puerto Rico faces, and the loss of population that intensifies the economic problems, but he always comes back to food.

“Congress decided that Puerto Rico was costing too much in food stamps. Ignoring the poverty levels on the island, Washington simply capped the levels of food assistance. The result is that to receive food assistance in Puerto Rico, you have to be much poorer than citizens on the mainland (with about one third fo their net income). If you qualify, you receive around 60% less in benefits than people who qualify on the mainland. For a family of three, you need to take home less than $599 in order to get food assistance of $315 a month. On the mainland, the same family could take home as much as $1,680 and get benefits of $511. to make matters worse, because the funding is capped, it cannot be expanded in case of a natural disaster like a hurricane. It’s hard to imagine a clearer signal from Washington to its colonial subjects: you are second-class citizens.”

States vs. territories

Later, Andres wrote about how media attention moved from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States, and the federal government’s attention followed. “The island became once again the forgotten disaster, where American lives did not seem as valuable as those in places lucky enough to hold full statehood in the United States of America.”

Andres has experienced disasters in States like Hawaii and in other countries like Haiti. His organization, World Central Kitchen, has fed millions of survivors of natural disasters.

In an interview with DiningTraveler, he described what he found in Puerto Rico. “[W]hen we arrived in Puerto Rico, we were planning on staying for a few days and feeding 1,000, maybe 2,000 people,” Andres shared. “But what we found was that the island was hungry and the people didn’t have money for food. None of the ATMs were working. There was no electricity, there was no fuel, there was no power—the entire island was shut down. Restaurants were closed. Hospitals didn’t have food. There was no clean water. The need was real.”

Seeing that FEMA was unable to meet the immediate needs of the people, Andres connected with other chefs, and pitched in. “When people are hungry—and remember that these are American citizens—let’s not worry about what’s going to happen in 3 weeks, but what we are doing today to feed people,” he said.

Andres ended up feeding more than 3 million people as the Island struggled to recover from Hurricane Maria. Then, inspired by the spirit of the people living in Puerto Rico, he began working to provide leadership for resiliency and ongoing solutions to food insecurity on the Island.

The territory imported 85% of their food before the Hurricane, when local agriculture and food processing were just beginning to see a revival. In 2019, World Central Kitchen committed $4 million to the effort.

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