Food trucks have become famous for fast fare like Korean tacos and Gianduja scoops. This spring, they’re serving up something new: social justice.
Drive Change, a venture hitting the streets as this story goes to press, uses food trucks to help formerly incarcerated youth — who serve up locally sourced maple-glazed pork sliders while on the road to prosperity.
It’s the brainchild of Jordyn Lexton, a 27-year-old Dalton- and Wesleyan-educated native Manhattanite who taught English for three years at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school. While teaching in what she describes as “the trenches,” Lexton witnessed a little-seen way of life. “I was working in the worst of the worst of the school conditions even on Rikers,” she recalls.
She’s referring to the two years she spent teaching at a haphazard facility called “the Sprungs,” four trailers outside the building that houses detained adolescents who are not yet sentenced. Lexton describes the trailers as “extremely makeshift” with gaps stuffed with empty Dorito bags, graffiti everywhere and zero technology. “It was just really the true study in recognition that destruction of a place begets destruction of a place.”
In three years, Lexton taught 13,000 students there — a whopping 600 of whom landed back at Rikers for new offenses just during her time working there. Lexton was impressed with many of her students, whom she describes as “so full of potential” and was shocked to see so many of them return to Rikers. She came to understand the forces behind this revolving door: Once released, students with felony records often can neither find work nor return to school; by the time they’re 28, a full 70 percent will have been reincarcerated. Based on established studies on preventing reoffense, she knew that what these kids really needed upon release is job training and quality paid employment.
One promising place on Rikers, she discovered, was the compound’s culinary arts program, where kids gain kitchen-job skills. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people would feel to be able to present the food they made,” says Lexton, “and it was so hard to come by that feeling within the devastating environment that is Rikers Island.”
Piecing together her observations, thoughts ignited, and she realized food could be a vehicle for reentry, literally. Lexton’s epiphany struck in December 2011 while she was traveling in Canada and enjoying a regional taffy-like maple confection called Sugar on Snow. She said to herself, “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton exuberantly recalls. But her ultimate objective wasn’t profit or food press.
A food truck, she realized, could “hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people. It could help with reentry and inform New Yorkers that we’re one of the few states in the Union that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults. In contrast to prison life’s crushing atmosphere and neglected spaces, these meals on wheels would be sleek, state-of-the-art rides delivering a progressive message via top-notch food.
Lexton’s research since leaving her Rikers job in February 2012 included work in the reentry world at the Correctional Association and for Work for Success, a Governor Cuomo jobs initiative targeting at-risk young males — as well as a stint as food truck manager at Kimchi Taco.
Two years and many mental light bulbs later, Lexton is launching New York City’s first food truck for social justice as you read this. Meet Snowday, the first truck in what Lexton hopes to be a fleet of vehicles providing an avenue back into society for recently released young inmates, one that needn’t detour back to Rikers.
Lexton has partners in anti-crime. Co-founder Annie Bickerton is working alongside her in collaboration with reentry organizations inside and outside Rikers and employing evidence-based practices known to lower recidivism, including paid employment, concrete skills and mentorship.
Drive Change doesn’t just offer ex-inmates a shift and a paycheck. Rather the three-part, eight-month mentorship program includes two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing: a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handler’s license and also a G-23 license to operate propane. Little wonder several city food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.
“One thing that’s proven to reduce recidivism in reentry programming is giving tangible credentials,” says co-founder Bickerton. “It’s very hard to find people with food experience who already have all of those licenses and are just ready to work.”
And Drive Change isn’t only about job creation. Lexton also sees it as a way to call attention to “Raise the Age” legislation, to let New Yorkers know that we and North Carolina are the only two states that automatically try and charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults rather than juveniles. The results are measurably tragic. The 70 percent recidivism rate for adolescents sentenced in the adult system is nearly twice the 40 percent recidivism rate for the adult population.
While the message may fuel Lexton, she knows most customers will be interested in the menu.
Its mastermind is culinary operations director Jared Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlow & Daughters. Disheartened that good food, grown well, is often a luxury, he was looking to make a more meaningful contribution to society. When he met Lexton last fall, Spafford recalls, “I was, like, ‘Oh, my God. Yes. Yes, I’ll do this. I’ll do anything for you guys.’”
While Spafford develops the menu, sourcing and prepping ingredients for program participants to cook to order, Roy Waterman will be serving on the frontlines as chef and mentor. A former offender himself, Waterman knows firsthand the experience of being locked up at a tender age.
Incarcerated from age 19 to 31, Waterman faced an uphill struggle to find employment when he was released in 2009 — and now uses this experience as an opportunity to connect with the young people in the program.
“I know what it’s like to go on 30, 40, 50 job interviews and be turned down, not because I wasn’t qualified for the job, but because I had the job all but sewn up until I had to fill out that infamous question, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’”
Under Waterman’s leadership, East River Academy alums who have been through Drive Change’s culinary arts program will be preparing and dishing out sugar on snow and other maple-forward fare, such as maple-braised pulled pork sliders, maple-bacon Brussels sprouts, maple grilled cheese with New York cheddar, and maple-chocolate cupcakes. Snowday will rotate through a lineup of locations, including spots in DUMBO, lower Manhattan, Harlem and hopefully Gowanus and Williamsburg.
As the fleet grows with new trucks sporting their own themed menus, graduates may move up into leadership roles like Waterman’s.
Food is the foundation. One young participant, Frederick Coleman, says “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. You know this ain’t money; money more divides people, food brings families that haven’t spoken together in years to a dinner table.” Coleman comes to Drive Change via the Doe Fund, a nonprofit providing shelter and skills to marginalized individuals, including those who are homeless, drug addicted and formerly incarcerated. In their “Ready, Willing and Able” program, the most popular tributary back to the mainstream, especially among adolescents, is via the culinary arts.
“Food transcends everything,” says chef Waterman. “Food is one of those industries that doesn’t hold things against you; no matter what your history is, you can still be a chef, you can still be a manager in a restaurant, you can still be a cook, a sous-chef. It doesn’t matter what it is you’ve been through.”
Drive Change’s Indiegogo campaign helped cover start-up costs, including designing and outfitting their first truck. Snowday is a former Con Edison truck shell — retrofitted by Bushwick engineers Shanghai MKS with a commercial kitchen and designed by Brooklyn Navy Yard–based Situ Studio. It’s Lexton’s response to the Sprungs, her way of demonstrating to young participants that “their value is a high-end value.” She says, “that I wanted to infuse within the metalwork and the framework of the truck itself.”
With additional outside funding, they aim to hire an on-staff social worker and add another truck yearly, each of which will employ 30 young people. The goal is to employ 150 students annually by 2019.
Trainee Frederick Coleman can taste it already. “Roy says they’re going to make history and I agree with him. The way Jordyn is going to do it, I’m positive that the outcome is going to be stupendous.”
For a peek behind the scenes at some of Brooklyn’s food truck fabricators, click here. One decommissioned Con Ed truck rolled into Brooklyn and rolled out serving pulled pork sliders.
Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher