A very interesting exchange occurred on Al Punto, Univision’s Sunday political affairs show, which featured Chef José Andrés and host Jorge Ramos. Ramos and José Andrés managed to discuss the federal bureaucracy with regard to the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane María in Puerto Rico while leaving out one extremely key element.
Here’s the central portion of the exchange between the two. See if you can spot the white elephant in the room that goes entirely unmentioned:
JORGE RAMOS, HOST, AL PUNTO: Have you found, José Andrés, the formula for helping people? Something that governments can’t do? What do you do that governments don’t know how to?
CHEF JOSÉ ANDRÉS: The folks that work in government are wonderful people. They’re like you and like me. They want to do the best they can, but sometimes there are so many laws, so many regulations, that they’re often trapped within their own system which, in theory, was designed to help. When an organization like ours shows up we have...we have no rules. Our only thing is the mission. The mission is to give people food and drink. And, simply, we turn any problem into an opportunity.
RAMOS: This is to say, governments and NGOs have much to learn from you, no? The freshness, the energy, the clarity- and leaving bureaucracies aside.
ANDRÉS: I believe that sometimes when the large NGOs, in this case, FEMA…
RAMOS: The Red Cross…
ANDRÉS: The Red Cross, the Salvation Army...there comes a time when they are (made up of) so many people that, sometimes, perhaps they forgot how they started out. And I believe that what we bring is, simply, freshness. Our mission- One: to feed people. What do we need? Kitchens, food, volunteers. Two: We need to know where the different shelters or communities are that have been totally neglected. We establish contact. We begin to cook, we begin to feed. Problem solved. Often when you start to talk about government or large NGOs, they want to start with, “Well, we need to fill out a form. We need…” No, people. People are hungry NOW, not a week from now, not a month from now.
RAMOS: It’s TODAY.
Give yourself a point if you spotted that nowhere in this exchange (or anywhere in the interview) is it mentioned that José Andrés (through the non-governmental organization that he founded, World Central Kitchen) was not in Puerto Rico on a purely volunteer basis, but was there under FEMA contract.
Per a FEMA spokesperson, World Central Kitchen was awarded two contracts for services to be rendered in Puerto Rico. Pursuant to the first contract, which was in effect from October 4 to October 11 of last year, World Central Kitchen provided 120,000 meals a day at a cost of $5,040,000. Per the second contract, World Central Kitchen provided 240,000 meals per day for 53 days at a cost of $76,320,000. Both contracts average out to six dollars a meal, which is not bad at all given the terrain and the circumstances under which these meals (many of them hot) were provided.
The interview on Univision was part of José Andrés’ promotion of his new tome “We Fed An Island”, and José Andrés’ discussion of the sheer unwieldiness of the federal bureaucracy are only bolstered by his documented judiciousness with taxpayer dollars. Why not bring that up directly, then? Why leave Univision’s viewers to speculate as to how the renowned chef came to have all these insights? Other media outlets did disclose the FEMA contractor status of the Chef, but like Univision also failed to detail that FEMA funds are what powered the vast majority of the Chef's Puerto Rico operations. For example, here’s a sample from The Wall Street Journal:
Throughout the narrative, Andrés’s biggest roadblock is FEMA, the federal agency tasked both with managing the disaster and, unfortunately for the agency, facing challenge after challenge from José Andrés. The chef is baffled by its procedures. FEMA serves up prepackaged military-style meals while he insists on cooking fresh sancocho from 80-inch paella pans. It wants to bring in bread from Florida, but he knows of 12 bakeries on the island ready to sell their supply. FEMA contracts a small-business owner in Georgia, who, overwhelmed by the order for 18.5 million meals, delivered only 50,000. Andrés recalls one FEMA meeting he made his way into without proper credentials; he was ushered out by an armed escort. Eventually, he negotiates a series of reimbursement contracts worth millions. The agency’s most important asset, he suggests, is the funding it’s able to offer.
In a statement, FEMA press secretary Jenny Burke noted the unprecedented logistical challenges of distributing more than 35 million meals in 60 days, “making it the largest emergency food and water distribution effort in FEMA history.” To prepare the island for the current hurricane season, the organization “increased warehouse capacity from one distribution center to five” and stockpiled 3.8 million meals, up from 500,000 last year, and about 3.6 million gallons of water.
Even there, the Wall Street Journal failed to spell out the extent to which federal funding made World Central Kitchen's operations in Puerto Rico possible, to the tune of over $80 million. It did disclose, however, the far smaller amount of $20 million in private donations that WCK received in 2017.
Going back to Univision - was that so hard? Univision alone knows why the decision was made to conceal the enormity of José Andrés’ contract status from their viewers. But whatever the network’s rationale, it certainly couldn’t have been in the service of fact-based journalism.