Perhaps it seems like a contradiction that those who cook and serve meals at the most exclusive restaurants in the world are also some of the loudest voices for causes related to food insecurity—that is, lack of reliable access to nutritional food.
“It’s a very simple reality that we feed the few, but we have the opportunity to feed the many,” Josè Andrès, the Spanish-born, D.C.-based chef who owns 27 restaurants globally, tells PEOPLE. “But the two are not at odds with each other. It would be hard for me to say, when I’m 80 or 90 years old, that I didn’t use my knowledge of feeding others to help the many.”
While food banks and soup kitchens are providing necessary and often under-funded services—charity organizations like Feeding America, Meals on Wheels and No Kid Hungry, for instance, strive to fill the gap in access to good food and nutrition in the U.S. largely through private donations—many in the industry are turning to more creative approaches to solving hunger.
“I think that’s a symptom of being a chef,” says Alex Guarnaschelli, the Food Network star who works with No Kid Hungry and childhood cancer foundation Alex’s Lemonade Stand. “There’s so much teaching and mentoring that goes along with cooking, that it feels like a natural extension of that.”
For Andrès, that meant forming his own organization in 2012 to employ permanent solutions to global food-related issues. His World Central Kitchen spearheads projects to build modern cookstoves and provide culinary job training in communities in Haiti, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua,
“Today, we have over a billion and a half people in the world that still cook with charcoal,” says Andrès. “They still cook like we did thousands of years ago. It’s mind-blowing.”
“People can spend between 10 and 40 percent of their daily salaries on charcoal to cook food,” he explains. Further, those doing the cooking—primarily women in most parts of the world—suffer health issues from the smoke inhalation that comes along with burning coals.
From an environmental standpoint, cutting back on charcoal—which is made from wood—has a domino effect of benefits, says the chef. “They don’t cut so many trees anymore, so they’re able to have real reforestation,” Andres says. “Their soil is healthier. Without trees, the rains deplete top soil. Without top soil there is no farming. When the soil is unhealthy, it lands in the ocean and makes the water cloudy, which hurts the fish—no fish, no fishing industry. When the water in the coastlines is clean, coral thrives, and tourism shows up.”
Domestically, TV chef Rachael Ray has used her massive media platform to bring attention to the thousands of hungry children in America. Her Yum-o organization, which she founded in 2006, works to educate kids and their families about nutritious cooking, and partners with schools to revamp their lunch programs.
“Any human, young or old, deserves the means to a nutritious meal,” Ray told PEOPLE in 2016. “It’s scary to think that there are families and children that wake up in the morning and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
Through her work, Ray has learned access to proper nutrition correlates with success at every level. “When you talk to principals and teachers, they say that the second the kids start eating better, their test scores go up, they come to school more often and they’re happier,” she said while on tour with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. “Everything improves, from attendance to scores.”
For other chefs, changes comes at the local level. Curtis Stone, for example, has found a mutually beneficial relationship with Chrysalis, an organization that matches homeless, low-income or previously incarcerated people with jobs to create a path to self-sufficiency. But Stone doesn’t simply see it as charity, but also as a practical business decision for his two Los Angeles restaurants, Maude and Gwen. “It’s hard to compare a prison to a kitchen, but kitchens are very structured and quite disciplined and these guys come from environments that marry that pretty closely and they get it,” he says.
The chef’s first hire through the organization in 2012 was Darrell Stevenson, who had served four drug-related prison sentences over 12 years. “By his own admission he’d gotten himself into trouble by being reckless and irresponsible so found himself in jail, found himself taking drugs,” Stone says. “When he came to us he had gotten himself sober and was doing much better. I said to him, ‘Do you realize you’re working in the best restaurant in L.A.?’”
Five years later, Stevenson has worked his way up to kitchen manager at Maude, overseeing 10 staffers, and become a close personal friend of Stone’s. “At the start you’re always like, ‘We’ll see where this goes,’ but if someone proves themselves to you, they’ll prove themselves to you,” he says. “I have guys that’ve spent the last 15 years of their lives working in 5-star Michelin restaurants standing next to a guy who spent most of his life in a prison, so it’s pretty cool.”