José Andrés works to feed Ukrainians on the front lines NPR's Michel Martin speaks with the founder of World Central Kitchen about the organization's efforts to feed Ukrainians and those who are fleeing the country.

Chef José Andrés and his team are feeding Ukrainians on the front lines of the war

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sparked one of the largest refugee crises of the modern era, with more than 2.5 million people leaving their homes in just the last two weeks to try to find safety. And that means many are traveling long distances without adequate food or water. World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit which provides meals in response to crises around the world, is trying to get food to those people. They've set up meal distribution sites at eight border crossings with Poland, and they're working with local restaurants, supermarkets and caterers in the region to provide food. The founder of World Central Kitchen, Chef Jose Andres, is in western Ukraine in Lviv right now.

Chef, welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

JOSE ANDRES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Would you just tell us a little bit more about where you are and describe the scene where you are?

ANDRES: Well, right now I am in Lviv, right outside a hotel in the heart of this city Lviv that is becoming kind of where all the refugees trying to leave the war behind, trying to find a safe home in the countries that are welcoming them. This is becoming the path where almost everybody that tries to leave Ukraine is coming through.

MARTIN: So you started operating - your group started operating shortly after the invasion began. How did you get set up so fast and how are you even getting the food you need?

ANDRES: Well, I want to make sure that everybody understand that obviously Ukraine has different scenarios. The places for 150 kilometers away from where I am right now, where people are in a war, where bombs are falling down and where children and women are dying every day by these non-logical attack by the Russians. Why we are so quick, because we don't plan, we don't meet. We come and we begin cooking and in the process we began covering the needs. Phase one for us was making sure that in Poland, all the border crossings, we could have food set up. So when people were coming in, they could have a hot plate of soup and water and we began taking care of them right there. But very quickly we began expanding in other countries, obviously Hungary, we're in Romania, we are in Slovakia, making sure that we cover every entry point to safety for Ukrainian refugees.

At the same time, we began doing the same in the Ukrainian border, inside Ukraine because sometimes the wait was at the beginning of this war was up to five days for people to be able to, from the moment they left here to the moment they went into safety could be many hours, many days, people walking, people in buses, people in trains, and we were making sure that people will get food down the road. We began partnering with restaurants, with people that already were doing it, and making sure that we create a network. Right now, we are in 12 cities inside Ukraine with hundreds of places that we deliver food daily, from train stations to refugee shelters, etc., etc. bringing the full force of the restaurant industry to make sure that we can feed everybody living the horrors of this war.

MARTIN: And I know that you talk to people while you're working with them and serving food. I mean, that's something that you've always done wherever you are. Would you just tell us a little bit about some of the people you've met or some of the stories that they've told you?

ANDRES: Well, every time you engage with people, giving them a smile and sometimes people use - they want to be listened or they don't want to talk because they want to feel that somebody is caring for them, but sometimes a child, you're giving them a fruit or a sandwich and very quickly, one of the first thing that young boy or young girl tells you is my dad is not here with us, my dad stay behind. You know that that child is almost like growing up way too quickly because he's almost knowing why, without telling you is almost telling you that he's just staying behind to defend his city, to defend the country and this kind of breaks your heart at the same time that you may have young men, Ukrainians coming from all over the world, even non-Ukrainian citizens of all the countries that they are coming to join the defense of this country.

When you see those young men going into Ukraine, knowing that they are going to be joining the fight, kind of breaks your heart because you wonder why we need to be putting young people - men and women - in this situation of having to go to defend their country and putting their lives at risk. Nothing makes sense. At least feeding people is what makes sense. Longer tables, people working together to make sure that one plate of food at a time we can bring hope of a better tomorrow.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, how are you doing?

ANDRES: Oh, I'm doing - I'm doing great. I'm coming to the comfort of my hotel room with hot water. But that makes you think like not too far away from where I am, where we enjoy the safety of our homes right now is young boys, young girls, woman, elderly, somewhere, somewhere in a tunnel, somewhere in a basement and where bombs are falling down over their heads. We all need to speak up. We need to do more. We need to be asking our leaders, especially the leaders of the democracies of the world, that we cannot leave the Ukrainian people alone. We need to be next to President Zelenskyy. They are defending their country. We need to make sure that the horrors that President Putin is bringing to Ukraine and to the world will not be successful. We cannot allow, never again, one person to control the destiny of an entire country of an entire planet.

MARTIN: That is chef Jose Andres. He's the founder of World Central Kitchen, which is a nonprofit that provides meals to people in crisis situations around the world. Chef, thank you so much for talking with us, and we respect and appreciate you.

ANDRES: Thank you. Let's pray for the Ukrainians.

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