Several days before forecasters predicted Hurricane Ian would hit the Gulf Coast, the Washington D.C.-based World Central Kitchen relief team arrived in Tampa with four semi-trucks filled with supplies.
Founded in 2010 by chef Jose Andres, World Central Kitchen (WCK) serves fresh meals to crisis victims worldwide. Since then, the organization has provided over 200 million meals, utilizing a network of volunteers – including chefs, drivers and pilots – who cook and deliver critically needed sustenance in the harshest conditions.
Part of that network is Tampa-based Metropolitan Ministries. The nonprofit provides a myriad of services to at-risk and homeless families. It also has a commercial kitchen capable of preparing 10,000 hot meals daily. Justine Burke, vice president of marketing and communications, said the organization’s employees and over 220 volunteers have worked “nonstop” since Friday to provide nutrition and comfort to those most impacted by the storm.
“It’s what we do,” said Burke. “We’re here in the crisis; we work harder in the crisis.”
Metropolitan Ministries serves as a relief kitchen for WCK, and Burke said the two nonprofits began coordinating efforts long before Ian’s arrival. Over the weekend, relayed Burke, the kitchen went through 11 pallets of food and provided 1,000 meals to local neighborhoods with no power.
Through an extensive statewide network, WCK and its volunteers delivered tens of thousands of meals to cities like Ft. Myers, Cape Coral and Sarasota in the first three days after Ian made landfall.
Nearly 60,000 came from Metropolitan Ministries’ commercial kitchen. Burke explained that once prepared, volunteers transport the meals south via truck, helicopter and small planes into the hardest hit areas. In addition to helping Tampa Bay’s neighbors to its south, Burke noted that her organization must still maintain its local operations.
“This morning (Monday), our regular Family Support Center had a line out into the parking lot with families in need,” she said. “Every day, we just reassess how can we best meet that need with our resources here.”
Burke said that the organization asked for the public’s help last Thursday, Sept. 29, just as the storm brought widespread damage across the state. Within hours, volunteer shifts for the entire weekend were full, she said.
Tampa Bay is a passionate and caring community, said Burke, who believes a sense of guilt also played a part in the outpouring of support. While anecdotal, she said locals felt lucky to dodge the brunt of the storm and wanted to do anything they could to help the less fortunate.
“They were saying things like, ‘it’s the least I could do,’” she relayed. “And they felt really good knowing the meals they were preparing were going … right down to those neighborhoods that really need it.”
Ronnica Whaley, the owner of three St. Petersburg-based Shiso Crispy food trucks, is one local helping Ian’s victims in a big way.
For several days, Whaley said she and four employees have woken at 3:30 a.m. every morning to prepare thousands of meals in her 35-foot food trailer.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Like ever in my career – and I’ve done some crazy shit.”
She is working with WCK to provide 1,000 portions of her best-selling Bang Bang Chicken with sticky rice and green beans daily. Those meals have gone to Bradenton and across the bay to Metropolitan Ministries, although Whaley said that in two days, she will load up her food trailer and head to Englewood. The city, situated on the coast just south of Venice and North Port, is among the areas most impacted by the storm.
Although Whaley said people “have come out of the woodwork” to offer their help and support her business, she must turn most of them away as her focus is keeping up with hurricane relief efforts and previously booked catering events.
Whaley relayed that Shiso Crispy started just before the pandemic and said, “the whole business has really been created out of helping the community, honestly.”
She called the first day of making 1,000 meals “one of the biggest disasters” of her entire life. However, Whaley explained that the team adopted a more efficient process by day three. She said those in need do not expect to receive high-quality meals and believes it brings a sense of normalcy to a dire situation, and Whaley plans to increase those numbers.
“I’m going to commit to a lot more than just 1,000,” said Whaley.
Burke said hygiene items, food and financial and housing assistance are still needed in southwest Florida and locally. She also worries about Hurricane Ian’s long-term effects on the region, as Tampa Bay residents were already struggling to afford the soaring cost of rent and groceries.
She explained that Hurricane Irma in 2017 showed many people living week-to-week could not afford to lose a refrigerator full of food or miss work for even a couple of days. She also called the “huge line” outside the outreach center Monday morning “an indicator that there are more people needing help.”
“And the other thing is, what may happen, is people that live to the south of us may come up here to seek refuge,” added Burke. “We’re preparing for that. It’s too early to tell yet.”
For more information on World Central Kitchen, visit the website here.
For more information on Metropolitan Ministries, visit the website here.