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‘The American Government Has Failed.’ Celebrity Chef José Andrés Slams FEMA’s Puerto Rico Response

3 minute read

José Andrés is proud to say he’s serving nearly 100,000 meals a day in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. But the celebrity chef says much more needs to be done, and he’s frustrated that the federal government isn’t stepping up to do its part.

Andrés, who is known for his activism and advocacy, often on behalf of the underrepresented, has traveled all over Puerto Rico in the last three weeks bringing meals to people cut off from government aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He said he’s thrilled to bring food to the people, but that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not offered him the support he needs to more efficiently feed the U.S. island territory’s residents. Although the amount of food he serves is growing, Andrés says government help could immediately get the operation to half a million meals a day.

“People are hungry today. FEMA should be in the business of taking care of Americans in this minute,” he told TIME from Puerto Rico. “The American government has failed.”

Parts of Puerto Rico are still without electricity or adequate drinking water since Hurricane Maria hit. At least 45 people have died, and more than 110 people are missing. The New York Times reports that some Puerto Rico residents continue to wait on FEMA for food and water deliveries. While 86% of grocery stores have reopened, the government has not guaranteed that they are stocked with enough supplies.

Through his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, which works to empower communities with food, plus volunteer work from several local and international chefs, Andrés has delivered hot meals and sandwiches to tens of thousands of hungry people in Puerto Rico. Using the hashtag #ChefsForPuertoRico, Andrés has documented on Twitter how his team has served food to people stuck in Puerto Rico’s rural, hard-to-access areas. By next week, Andrés hopes to have established a total of 12 kitchens throughout the island, paid for through Wold Central Kitchen.

FEMA did help Andrés at first, with a contract that gave him about $1.5 million. But the costs of serving meals in Puerto Rico have far exceeded the original amount of what Andrés called “petty cash.”

“FEMA used me as a puppet to show that they were doing something,” Andrés said, referring to the original contract.

A FEMA spokesperson said the agency attempted to negotiate with World Central Kitchen to provide an additional 20,000 meals total, but that Andrés requested a contract for more than 120,000 meals, which exceeds the agency’s threshold. Andrés said he’s frustrated by the regulations and bureaucracy. FEMA should “embrace complexity,” he said, because he believes lives are on the line.

Andrés also criticized President Donald Trump over FEMA’s response. Trump has been on the defensive about the way his administration has handled the crisis in Puerto Rico. Trump on Thursday threatened to pull support from the island, but said Friday that he will always be with the “wonderful people of Puerto Rico.” A White House spokesperson did not comment.

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Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com