How World Central Kitchen used Twilio to provide quality meals to families during the pandemic

Bowl with chopsticks


meals served during COVID-19

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cities served in U.S., Spain, and Indonesia

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restaurants and businesses supported

World Central Kitchen (WCK) was founded by Chef José Andrés following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. He envisioned an organization that could use the power of food to nourish communities and strengthen economies in times of need and beyond. Since its founding, WCK has grown to both provide immediate food relief after a disaster while also strengthening local food systems throughout the Carribean and Latin America.

Since its founding, the World Central Kitchen team has responded to disasters all over the world, serving more than 50 million meals to communities after both natural and man-made disasters. These disasters include hurricanes in Central America and the Carribean, wildfires in California, and earthquakes in Indonesia. While every emergency response is different, WCK has created an impactful playbook that enables them to act quickly to provide meals to people in need.

Staying nimble and innovative

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything changed. WCK was accustomed to serving community meals at a centralized location, often having to build their own field kitchen after storms or shakes destroyed structures and limited resources. With the pandemic, all infrastructure was intact, so WCK just needed to figure out how to use it. As is their nature, the WCK team quickly adapted. They put restaurants back to work, paying them to provide individual meals to people and families in need, simultaneously tackling the economic and humanitarian crises.

After many months of perfecting the process of their Restaurants For The People program, World Central Kitchen turned to Twilio to implement an SMS and voice solution. This system allows households to connect directly to local restaurants in New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC, ensuring that families heavily impacted by COVID-19 are able access fresh restaurant-prepared meals each day, without waiting in line.

“We realized that the infrastructure wasn’t damaged, so how do we activate it? While World Central Kitchen can’t be everywhere, restaurants were everywhere,” said CEO Nate Mook.

The nonprofit has always been connected with the food industry, relying on partnerships with chefs and restaurants to prepare meals in disasters. By working with their large network, WCK realized they could reach more communities by paying restaurants to start cooking again. WCK started the process on their own, then turned to Twilio for the tools and technology to make it happen on a more individualized level.

Providing food with dignity

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of new technology for many organizations, and World Central Kitchen was no exception. The team got to work figuring out how they could use technology to communicate with people on the ground in these numerous cities.

During the pandemic, the U.S. saw a soaring number of families that stated they did not have enough to eat. The health crisis had created an economic crisis that created a food crisis. Food banks were seeing record-breaking lines while many food distributors were throwing out food because they didn’t have anywhere to sell it.

After months of seeing hours-long lines of people waiting for meals or fresh produce boxes, WCK worked to reimagine a system in which people didn’t have to wait. Instead of a centralized distribution site, WCK set up a proactive approach to meet individuals needs on a case-by-case basis. From there, WCK Direct was born.

Accessible resources, built with purpose

Piloting the program in New York City, WCK Direct features an SMS and voice system using Twilio to make ordering meals a simple process for families.

“We need to put the agency back into the hands of the families. Using our SMS or phone system, they can dictate when they need food, how much food, and when it gets sent,” Mook said.

WCK worked with community-based organizations in NYC to identify households and enroll them in WCK Direct. Families can text the keyword “FOOD” to a phone number, follow a few basic prompts, and have the option to order meals from local restaurants, free of charge. The program prioritized hyper-local restaurants in order to support community business struggling during the pandemic. WCK Direct has since expanded to Chicago and Washington DC.

Speed was critical, and the team was able to pilot WCK Direct using Twilio Programmable Messaging and Programmable Voice in less than two weeks. World Central Kitchen used Twilio Studio to create the inbound text and voice flow and connected the program to WCK’s backend data storage. WCK then tapped into delivery APIs, like Postmates, to complete the final step of delivering hot meals to households unavailable to pick up at the restaurant.

Scaling beyond the pandemic

Since the program began in July 2020, WCK Direct has served over 92,000 meals across the three cities.

“It was important for us to build something that can get out the door fast and start small, but scale to provide thousands of people a day with food, and across many geographies,” Mook said.

In the US, you can order a product on Amazon and have it show up to your door the same day. The operations and logistics technology needed is available. However, families still wait long hours to pick up a box of food. Organizations like the World Central Kitchen are working to change that and bring innovation to the people who need it most.

The WCK team also sees other opportunities to leverage the same tools to communicate with congregate shelters on the ground during natural disasters, creating a two-way communication flow they did not have before. Red Cross, or other shelter managers can more easily communicate meals they need on a daily basis without excessive phone calls and coordination.

With Twilio enabling World Central Kitchen to communicate with virtually any individual or organization on the ground, the possibilities are endless.

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