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Fighting War with Food

When Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation or cause in February, I decided to put my business and life on hold to help. I volunteered with World Central Kitchen in Przemysl, Poland, near the Ukraine border, started a GoFundMe raising over $15,000 for Ukrainian relief and left for Poland on June 3rd. After landing in Warsaw via New York and London, I found myself immersed in history, walking into the section of the city where fragments of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall remain. I immediately realized this trip would be challenging.

After a four-hour drive, I settled in, ready to do whatever was asked of me. There were about two dozen other volunteers on the cooking side in addition to dozens on the logistics and distribution side. Volunteers had come from all over the world—a Hollywood producer, a finalist from Master Chef, a coffee roaster, college students, retirees, attorneys, business owners, freelance journalists, Ukrainians, Poles, Americans, Canadians, Australians, British and others. It was heartwarming to see so many from all over willing to do whatever they could to help.

Each day, we made food for local distribution and for two nearby border crossings. Every night, we would meet the incoming refugee trains from Lviv and Kyiv with food and supplies. Daily, we made 5,000 panini, a hot protein (beef, chicken, pork or turkey), rice, kasha or potato, salad, soup and dessert, and bought toys for the kids.

I quickly realized the food needed to be handheld, easy to eat and appetizing to the Ukrainian palate. The kitchen operation was incredibly efficient with assembly line processing starting around 8:30 am and finishing up late in the afternoon.

The people coming were mostly women with young children or seniors, since men of fighting age are being required to stay behind. Many of the mothers looked exhausted yet stoic, keeping their composure for the sake of their kids. The younger children seemed happy, as if they were simply going on a trip, but the older ones understood the shock of war. The seniors were distraught, as many said they had been through the horrors of World War II and didn’t think it would happen again.

Making Meaningful Connections

One young girl and I connected as she was walking up for food. She had drawn a beautiful picture to thank us for being there. She wanted to take a picture with me. I have children, and I found it difficult to keep my composure.

A woman later walked up and explained through tear-filled eyes that she had lost her home, her business, family members and the very town she had lived in, but she was so grateful that we were there to offer aid. I told her she and the Ukrainian people are loved and we were there to help.

Another day, I met two soldiers wearing fatigues, and through talking with them, I learned they were from the Czech Republic and had volunteered to fight in a foreign legion. They had no military or other training, no ties to Ukraine, had paid their own transportation and supply costs and had been fighting in trenches for many weeks. They were now on their way back home. I was overwhelmed by their heroism and willingness to sacrifice their lives for others.

A Life-changing Experience

During my time there, I was constantly reminded of the bravery, heroism and courage of the Ukrainian people fighting so tenaciously against this unjust war. Returning home on June 16th, I was emotionally and physically exhausted but knew I had just had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I will continue my work, helping the Ukrainian refugees who are now arriving in Charlotte and are so desperately in need of our assistance as they begin to build new lives here.

Robert “Ernie” Adler is the Smokemaster of Ernie’s Smokehouse BBQ in Charlotte. You can also find him on TV monthly on WCNC and WBTV.

Want to help Ernie in his mission to assist Ukrainian refugees in the Queen City? Contact him at 704.577.1777 or