America Eats, or Doesn't

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Surplus squash with nowhere to go. Photo by Lynne Sladky/AP

As usual, Trump is failing, this time at the most elemental task of feeding the populace. With no coherent supply system in place to counter the chaos of COVID-19, overwhelmed food banks are scrambling to meet an immense need, with Feeding America estimating the pandemic will cause 17 million more people to "experience food insecurity" - bureaucratese for, "they and their kids will go to bed hungry" in what is touted as the richest country in the world. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture has been ripped for its "grotesque, deadly" failures, taking more than a month to start buying up $1 billion worth of fresh produce rotting in fields despite desperate pleas to act sooner; when they finally unveiled a $19 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to get those mountains of surplus to people in need, the grossly inadequate plan was derided as "a joke." And the feds' bad jokes keep coming. A push by the impeached Hamberger-Eater-In-Chief to keep increasingly COVID-19-infected meat processing plants open has been savaged by organized labor, and his latest brilliant, flailing idea, the "Great American Economic Revival Industry Group," consists of donors, fast-food chains and other massive, corporate, bail-out greedy chains serving mostly chemical slop.

Among those trying to fill the vacuum where federal action should be are many non-profits and some private companies; last week, Publix supermarket chain announced it would "bridge the gap" by buying surplus food and donating it directly to food banks. Still, the Super Star in stepping is Chef José Andrés, the Spanish-born - yes, an immigrant - celebrity chef who through his World Central Kitchen (WCK) has fed millions in global disaster zones, including Haiti and Puerto Rico (We Fed An Island), and was nominated for 2019's Nobel Peace Prize. When the pandemic hit in March, Andrés - "Without empathy, nothing works" - was there. He quickly closed his 30 restaurants, and he and his volunteers went to Oakland to feed passengers and crew on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship as Trump tried to ignore it. In six weeks, trying to address gaping "blind spots in the system," his #ChefsForAmerica have served over three million meals, about 200,000 a day, to frontline workers and vulnerable communities in 155 cities. Andrés has created endless partnerships - with schools, Nationals Park, Panera Bread - to cook and distribute free meals. He's worked to support and lobby Congress on behalf of independent restaurants; he's given out packaged fresh meals in hard-hit communities; he's urged the country's doctors and nurses to eat free at his restaurants for a year once they can.

In stark, sorry contrast to a fumbling government, Andrés is, in short, "a lesson of leadership in crisis," notes a Time profile, "nimble, confident, proactive." Also, tireless. This week, Andrés sought to call out this nation's unholy discrepancies with an urgent post that began, "People of America!" It features two photos "that tell the story of food in our country in this moment... two different, painful realities that we are experiencing." One image shows tons of potatoes dumped in Idaho, "without any buyers because stadiums, cafeterias, restaurants are shut down." The second image shows over 10,000 cars waiting stoically in line before dawn for a food bank to open in San Antonio, "but it could be anywhere in the country right now." Such glaring dissonance, Andrés declares, represents an "opportunity we must seize to make sure food is not the problem but the solution." "There is so much work to fix the system," he notes. "@WCKitchen is doing what we know best, working with farmers and restaurants and everyone in between to feed anybody in need of a meal." But leadership is sorely lacking, from Trump, Congress, FEMA, USDA. In its absence, he's starting a new series of "stories of food and hope." He's calling it #AmericaEats in tribute to the New Deal's WPA program, which honored this country's food traditions and the workers behind it, and which he'd dearly like to see replicated. But for now in these leaderless times, writes one fan, "You are hope."

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The two photos posted side by side by a rightfully appalled Chef José Andrés

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Feeding the cruise ships Trump didn't want to allow to dock

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Feeding Puerto Rico. Photos by World Central Kitchen

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