WASHINGTON–This Christmas Eve, my family will be sharing a Puerto Rican Christmas meal with our closest friends. Each of our families will bring their own special dish from recipes handed down by generations (or in my case, downloaded from Epicurious). Even though we’re all doing our own thing, we have something very basic in common – we’ll be cooking on electric or gas stoves and not worrying about how to power them.
Sadly, this is not true for more than 1 billion women around the world. Whether it’s a holiday or not, they’ll be cooking the same way they cook every day of the year–on a three stone fire which is exactly what it sounds like: three large stones, generally laid out in a triangle, on which a pot can sit. It’s the kind of fire you may build when on a camping vacation.
While it may be fun to cook on a campfire for a few days, having to do it every day of your life is backbreaking work. First, you have to get the wood or charcoal you are going to burn. If there isn’t a vendor nearby, you might have to walk a couple of hours to find enough wood to cook a meal. When you can finally start cooking, the smoke inevitably burns your eyes and fills your lungs. After years of cooking this way, you will probably end up with cataracts, lung cancer, or another of the many other diseases associated with constant exposure to smoke.
As you cook, remember to be super vigilant so that you can catch your toddler who is just learning to walk before she trips and falls into the fire and burns herself. After all, it happens every day to children all over the world. And finally, don’t forget that every piece of clothing you own will smell of smoke, all the time, and the walls of your house will be covered in black soot that you can never wash away.
In short, there is nothing glamorous or particularly fun about three stone fire cooking. It’s exhausting and laborious, and if that wasn’t enough, it is also terrible for our planet. When a billion other women are cooking like this, to feed more than three billion people, it causes significant deforestation in some parts of the world and releases millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every year, contributing to climate change.
It’s one thing to read these figures and be horrified. It is another to witness the impacts of three stone fires first hand, as I have in Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico and most recently in Haiti. The smell of burning wood quickly loses the romance I associate with s’mores and winter, especially in the early evening when a haze of smoke blurs the sunset as thousands of families prepare their dinner. The pervasive smell becomes more of a stench and my eyes water from all the soot floating in the air.
For all these reasons, I am thrilled that I work at World Central Kitchen, a U.S.-based non-profit that aims to help people, especially women and children, through the power of food. The organization was founded by chef José Andrés after he visited Haiti in 2010 after a massive earthquake that shattered much of an already impoverished country.
What started as an emergency feeding operation eventually evolved into a long-term commitment to support the Haitian food economy through a variety of programs including Food for Thought that equips school kitchens in Haiti with LPG (liquid propane gas) powered stoves, along with sinks with running water and stainless steel prep tables. All of this is so that school cooks, who are often mothers volunteering their time in exchange for a meal, can prepare food for the students in a safe and sanitary manner. To date we have outfitted more than 140 schools, impacting more than 500 women cooks and over 35,000 students. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it is a start – and one that I am quite proud of.
So, when I start preparing my contribution to our Puerto Rican Christmas potluck dinner, I will remember how very fortunate I am to have a place to cook that is clean, safe and not smoky. And as I look to 2019, I’m excited that World Central Kitchen will be building 10 new school kitchens in Haiti and impacting more lives, once again.
Alexandra Garcia is the Chief Program Officer with World Central Kitchen.
Photos: 1) Women in China cooking (Shutterstock); 2) Woman in Rwanda over cookstoves (Shutterstock); 3) Woman in Haiti cooking food (Alexandria Garcia)