May 13, 2022

A Homeland Under Siege

For Wish Farms, a donation to World Central Kitchen for the non-profit’s work in Ukraine was about more than wanting to help a country in turmoil. It was personal.

Media coverage of war zones has always been a harrowing affair—for centuries, journalists put their lives on the line alongside soldiers in order to give readers, listeners and viewers back home a sense of the visceral reality around them in an attempt to clarify the fog of war.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has added a modern twist to that kind of comprehensive news coverage. It is a war unfolding in real time, and not just filtered for edited consumption on 24-hour cable news channels. It is also being documented thanks to besieged citizens and aid workers detailing the humanitarian crisis on social media.

One of those is Chef José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen is now providing up to 300,000 meals daily to survivors of the atrocities in the country and refugees in seven countries who were forced to flee the war zone. Working with local partners on the ground to rebuild food systems in the wake of the invasion, WCK reached Bucha—the site of documented war crimes committed against civilians by Russian soldiers—mere hours after Ukranian forces liberated the city. The organization provided hot meals and 13,000 pounds of fresh food to the community, and were the first outsiders citizens encountered since the siege began.

While setting up a supply chain for the meals, Andrés and WCK CEO Nate Mook regularly posted to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as conducting media interviews with traditional outlets, to detail the work chefs are doing in the country. The numbers are irrefutable to the organization’s efficacy; from the start of the invasion to the first week of April, WCK has served more than six million meals to those suffering during the Ukraine crisis and those following on social media can see the evidence first-hand.

Walt Dasher, Vice President of G&R Farms in Georgia, made a $2,500 donation to World Central Kitchen and issued a call to action for other produce companies to step up. “I have watched in disbelief the crisis unfolding in Ukraine, and I am moved by the perseverance the Ukrainian people are showing to protect their families and get them to safety, while also staying behind to defend their country,” Dasher said. “They are an example to the world, and they are the line in the sand that represents freedom. As a food industry, we grow nourishing foods, and together let’s help Chef Andrés nourish a nation in need. I challenge each produce company to join me and make a donation to World Central Kitchen.”

For Wish Farms, the response to Dasher’s plea was immediate, and it came on the heels of Nick Wishnatzki, the Public Relations Manager at Wish Farms, seeing Andrés on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN.

“My great-grandfather immigrated from Ukraine in 1904,” Wishnatzki said. “He was a pushcart peddler in Kyiv. Basically, all the pushcart peddlers were Jewish, and there were laws against Jewish people owning standing businesses. So, they got creative and had pushcarts instead. He wanted to escape the oppression that was happening, so he and his sister left and came to America.”

Once he was processed through Ellis Island, Wishnatzki’s great-grandfather started selling fruits, vegetables and fish from his pushcart on the streets of New York. Soon, he had a fleet of pushcarts—and eventually he and another peddler joined together to start a wholesale business. Thus Wish Farms was born in 1922, and the milestone combined with the horror unfolding on his television screen spurred the Wishnatzki family to act.

“I mean, gosh, it’s our hundredth anniversary,” Wishnatzki said. “We just felt a really strong connection.”

Wish Farms donated $5,000 to World Central Kitchen via The Wish Farms Family Foundation. “It aligned perfectly, not only because we feel so horribly about what’s going on in Ukraine, but also because it aligns perfectly with our foundation and its mission,” he said.

The Wish Farms Family Foundation was established in 2019 to better focus the family’s philanthropic and community efforts, Wishnatzki said. To that point, giving had been heartfelt but piecemeal—they had put on some charity events and giving scholarships, but “it wasn’t very focused. It didn’t have a defined mission. There wasn’t a specific amount of money set aside. We would do things as they came along.”

Defining the mission statement served to codify the family’s giving priorities, which perhaps counterintuitively allows them to pivot when a matter of urgent response comes up—such as a philanthropic response to the atrocities in Ukraine.

“Our three pillars that we follow are food insecurity, child and youth education, and community,” he said. “It gives us a little bit more room to select different charities.”

The Wish Farms Family Foundation food insecurity pillar directly ties it to the work WCK is doing. As Andrés tells it, the idea for WCK came from a conversation he had with his wife, Patricia, about how to provide aid in a humanitarian crisis. The crux of that conversation? “When people are hungry, send in cooks. Not tomorrow, today.”

Wishnatzki said that selecting recipients like WCK is a family effort, where the group gather quarterly to talk about the budget and what charities, organizations and causes we want to support. One of the main sources of fundraising is Pixie Rock, the Foundation’s annual charity event. In April 2021, they used the occasion to celebrate their new headquarters and raised $450,000. This year, they hope to do the event in November to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary.

To make sure that the “family” part of the Foundation includes the Wish Farms employee family, the team asks each month for employees to nominate their favorite charities and causes that are important to them. They then do a progressive spin on an employee match—the executive team selects one employee-nominated organization every month to donate $1,000. “We feature the organization in an email and on our video boards,” he said. “It gives everyone a sense that we’re in this together and it’s a group effort.”

Wishnatzki hoped that this kind of communal feeling of giving to Ukraine can embed in the agriculture industry as a whole, and that as much as he was inspired by Dasher’s donation, that there now will be others in ag who are inspired by Wish Farms to donate to organizations like World Central Kitchen who are on the ground in the country. So far, several other ag entities have donated to WCK, including The Fresh Market, which committed to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from purchases of a five-stem pack of sunflowers and a special bouquet with blue and yellow flowers as a nod to the Ukrainian flag.

“The power of our industry is an amazing thing,” Wishnatzki said. “We already have a history of giving—literally donating the product that we grow directly to food banks—and I just see so much more involvement now, because to a certain extent social media and digital news helps with the immediacy. Seeing the work that WCK is doing on the ground, immediately, is wonderful and you see how impactful that is. When people step up, they really step up.”

Editor’s Note: In April, a restaurant working in partnership with WCK in Kharkiv was hit by a Russian missile; four staff members were hospitalized.