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The sun hadn't been up long on October 15 when the first people lined up at Roberts Community Center in Battery Heights in the heart of Raleigh's historically Black neighborhoods on the first day of early voting in North Carolina.
The temperature reached 79 by high noon. We Tarheels sometimes refer to this time of year as our second summer, our flip flops remaining by the door even as the leaves begin to change.
Many of those who'd been waiting since morning were hoping for a different kind of change.
According to the News and Observer, more than 350 North Carolianians were waiting in line at Roberts Park before the polls opened at 8 a.m., the earliest voters arriving at 4 in the morning. By noon, 76,000 voters cast their ballots across the state.
We couldn't have prayed for better weather to wait at the polls. But people were getting hungry.
Lucky for them, James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen had cooked up something special. And World Central Kitchen's Chefs For the Polls initiative was footing the bill.
The menu was stacked: Pork shoulder meatloaf served with a side of whipped yukon gold potatoes and topped with a charred onion gravy from Christensen's legendary fried chicken joint, Beasley's Chicken + Honey.
When Christensen was contacted by her friend Chef José Andrés to participate in Chefs For the Polls, she was instantly on board.
"I knew early on that I wanted to feed people during this election season," she said. "The idea of sharing food with folks who are in line to make a difference, to engage in something unifying, felt like such a clear and obvious purpose during a year that has lacked that."
After an experimental run during the primaries, Chefs for The Polls kicked off on October 12 in the South as early voting began. At their first stop in Marietta, Georgia, chefs served hundreds of voters as they stood in line for 12 hours. Food trucks, caterers, restaurateurs, and volunteers served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hungry voters, poll workers, and anyone else in need of a hot meal.
Their green signs were emblazoned with a message: "Food is hope. Food is community."
Celebrity chefs and civic duty
While some may look at the 12-hour wait times in Marietta with shock, Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, and his partners saw the writing on the wall during the primaries.
"We, like the rest of the country, were carefully watching what was happening during the primaries and noticing incredibly long lines in places like Georgia and Texas. We had already built up this incredible network of chefs like Ashley Christensen, restaurants, and food trucks across the country to respond to the pandemic. So we thought, 'What if we could put these folks to work for their communities during our election?'"
In July, World Central Kitchen tested out their plan in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Expo Center — the city's sole voting location during the summer. What Nook and his team realized was that this is a way to meet multiple needs at once.
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"We had celebrity chef, Ed Lee, out there grilling burgers, as well as a snow cone truck, and it was a really positive uplifting experience to families that were out there. You know, many folks are still struggling right now with hunger in our country, because of this pandemic. Getting a meal or a plate of food, it really goes a long way." World Central Kitchen found a way to not just meet a crucial need, but to do it in a way that brought joy and boosted morale during a difficult election.
Nook and his team stayed true to this model as they geared up for early voting, heading to the South once again. What sets Chefs for the Polls apart from other initiatives feeding hungry voters is the high quality food they serve that speaks to regional cultures. In Miami, Florida, partners served pastelitos from the legendary Lucerne Bakery for breakfast, and a hearty Cuban pasta salad later in the day. In Charleston, South Carolina, voters received a classic, 48-hour pulled pork BBQ sandwich from the award-winning restaurant, Rodney Scott's BBQ.
"With all of our work, it is very important that the food focuses on those we're serving," Nook said. "That means engaging with the local restaurants and the local chefs preparing dishes that are appropriate for the region, but also to the circumstances."
Those circumstances include the grim reality many restaurant owners are facing themselves.
COVID-19 has taken an unprecedented toll on the restaurant industry as cities instituted shutdown orders in the spring. "We are working with a number of different partners on the ground, who are absolutely still struggling from COVID," Nook said.
World Central Kitchen pays their partners providing meals for Chefs for the Polls, as well as their relief efforts, like Restaurants for The People. "And that's absolutely part of the whole plan: to keep them at the front and center."
After disaster, pizza by helicopter
When World Central Kitchen was founded by Chef José Andrés 10 years ago, it was in response to the horrendous 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti just two weeks into the new year.
In the months and years that followed, Andrés and his team showed up at locations rocked by natural disasters all over the world. Andrés' affection for the United States — where he has lived for 25 years and is not a citizen — was changed after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
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"I think that sort of broke something inside José," Nook said. He felt as if this country he loves could do better. World Central Kitchen's response in Puerto Rico marked a shift in focus for the operation to center needs in the United States, while still availing their work to the rest of the world.
Since then, the team of chefs has shown up to partner with restaurants and feed people after tornadoes in Missouri and Ohio, tropical storms in Louisiana, and wildfires in California. Andrés doesn't simply swoop in after a crisis, never to return again. World Central Kitchen has returned to Puerto Rico multiple times since Hurricane Maria, including last November to offer grants to business owners and hosting a large market for local farmers.
Working during a crisis has prepared this organization to expect the unexpected. While serving voters in Florida, Chefs For the Polls volunteers were notified lines were growing longer in Broward County, and the folks waiting were getting weary. Andrés contacted a friend and helicopter pilot in the Bahamas, and they delivered pizza and water to serve folks on the spot.
As early voting exceeds outcome predictions and proceeds under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, Nook said their network is ready to respond. He, Chef Andrés, and Chef Christensen have not only responded to our city's basic needs, but have also worked hard to rebuild a sense of community and hope during a time filled with fear and divisiveness.
"My understanding of my role as a chef has always involved cooking for the community," Christensen said. "Restaurants are public spaces, and cooking and eating is an essential component of how we connect as a society."
Through Chefs for the Polls, Andrés and his team have taken the joy of eating out to our polling places.
From brass bands playing in New Orleans to snow cone trucks in Louisville, the mission is to make voting a joyful experience against all odds.
"Voting should not be a dreadful thing," Nook said. "We need to make voting something so exciting that it feels like a holiday and we look forward to it."