Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's Support For Ukraine Is 'A Blessing,' Says Food Charity Founder

Chef José Andrés tells PEOPLE that World Central Kitchen has supplied 9.3 million meals to Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began in February

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's support for charities working in Ukraine is having an impact where it matters most: on the ground.

"It is a blessing," says chef José Andrés, 52, founder of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit dedicated to feeding communities negatively impacted by humanitarian crises which partnered with Harry and Meghan's Archewell Foundation in Dec. 2020.

"I love them," he tells PEOPLE. "I have been able to spend time with them, working with them and they are very hands-on and highly knowledgeable of what's happening in the world, what the issues are, and what the needs are.

"For me, it is a pleasure to call them friends. All my life I have been trying to learn what exactly we are missing because why is there still hunger? What are we missing? We have to make the most of the opportunities of goodness, and I believe that with people like Meghan and Harry, we can make it happen."

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Chef José Andrés. Paul Morigi/Getty Images

On March 18, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced that they had donated funds to World Central Kitchen, alongside other organizations working to support the Ukrainian people, including HIAS (Helping Ukrainian Families Settle), the World Health Organization and The HALO Trust.

This has helped Andrés and his team of chefs, volunteers and logistics experts to continue the important work they started the moment Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border on Feb. 24.

Within 12 hours, the U.S.-based charity was on the ground providing hot food to refugees on the Polish border, and it has remained there ever since. To date, they have delivered 9.3 million meals to people in seven different European countries, partnering with 345 restaurants inside Ukraine and operating in 60 Ukrainian cities — including Kyiv, war-torn Kharkiv and areas of the Russian-occupied Donetsk region.

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World Central Kitchen staffers working in Ukraine. World Central Kitchen

"We are an organization that goes and does things," Andrés tells PEOPLE ahead of his third visit to the country. "We got the first kitchen up and running within 12 hours. We began in Poland and then went into Lviv and Kyiv."

"The majority is hot food, but sandwiches occupy a very important role in all of our operations too," continues Andrés about the operation, which has transported an incredible 5.25 million lb. of food to eastern Europe via air, rail, and road," the chef explains. "They taste great, are packed with calories, are easy to carry, and children love them. They are good for the elderly too, as sometimes they have issues with special dietary restrictions."

He adds, "They can be ham or turkey or vegetarian because there's a lot of different types of people, and we try to cover everything. And we make them very moist, especially for the elderly."

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World Central Kitchen staffers on the Ukraine border. World Central Kitchen

Amid this huge influx of ingredients, paper plates and food containers, however, Andrés and the World Central Kitchen team remain constantly aware of the inherent risks of operating inside an active war zone. Particularly, when Russian forces have proved themselves to be so willing to target civilian buildings.

"We move quickly," explains Andrés about their safety measures. "One of our people was delivering in Kharkiv at the train station and a missile hit 100 meters from where he was. I was also in Lviv driving away with my daughter and around an hour, later a missile hit the exact same spot we had been.

"At the end of the day the guys and myself, we are alone in the front. Nobody is going to come and rescue us. But the decision is ours. Especially in the Russian occupied territories, it is a bit dangerous, so you have to be super careful with that."

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Families eating food provided by World Central Kitchen. World Central Kitchen

For Andrés, this danger was brought into stark focus following the withdrawal of Russian troops from the town of Bucha in northern Ukraine, when he came face-to-face with the aftermath of the alleged murder and torture of civilians by Russian forces.

While Russia has denied committing the atrocities, insisting they were faked, the area is now the focus of a war crimes investigation led by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands — where Prince Harry's Invictus Games 2022 start on Saturday.

"In Bucha, you will see cars on the street with the word 'children' written all over it in Russian, and you see that car has been shot down indiscriminately," Andrés reveals, while hiding the full details of the horrors he witnessed. "You look into the car and see that there are children's things and toys and seats. You can only imagine who can shoot a car that has the word 'children' written all over it."

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A mother and baby eat food provided by World Central Kitchen. World Central Kitchen

Despite coming face-to-face with such evil, Andrés and his team are committed to helping Ukraine for as long as it takes. "For us, this is not a 100 meters, this is a marathon," he tells PEOPLE.

For this, he is immensely grateful for the support of all his organization's workers, volunteers and supporters, Harry and Meghan included.

"It was very refreshing the first time I met them," Andrés continues about the couple. "They contacted me and said, 'We want to be a partner with you.' For me, it is amazing. They are very good people.

"Let me put it this way," he adds. "When we need them, they always show up."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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