“Snowday,” the first food truck from the social enterprise Drive Change, showed up this spring at Brooklyn Bridge Park for the annual NYFEST soccer tournament. The sky was blue, relief from the unremitting winter finally in the New York City air, and the soccer players and their families were famished. I bought grilled maple cheese sandwiches for my son and granddaughter and found the food inspired, with what Drive Change calls “a side of social change.”
Drive Change hires and trains formerly incarcerated youth to prepare and operate the nonprofit’s food trucks. “Our values are rooted in the belief that young people with criminal histories can live crime-free, bright futures full of opportunity,” founder Jordyn Lexton said. “Our trucks are our vehicles for social justice — allowing young people to have hands-on experience and develop transferable skills to become leaders in today’s society.”
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Lexton went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. During her spare time, she volunteered at Middletown Correctional Training School, a juvenile detention center. After she graduated from college, she went on to teach English to adolescent men at Rikers Island’s East River Academy high school in New York City. She worked in difficult facilities known as “the Sprungs,” four trailers housing youths who were not yet sentenced. “So many of these kids were full of such potential,” Lexton said. Yet she saw a cycle: New York is one of the states that automatically tries 16-year-olds accused of committing crimes as if they were adults. Of the 13,000 students she taught, 67% of them returned to jail or prison three years after release.
Against that wearying backdrop, a culinary arts program stood out. “It was remarkable to witness how much pride these young people felt being able to cook and present food they had made. And within that devastating environment, feelings of this kind were hard to come by.”
That got Lexton thinking about food as a way of reentry for young people who rarely can find good jobs during parole, and when they do, find it difficult to hang onto them because they are untrained.
Lexton began to research ways to reduce recidivism by working in the reentry world at the Correctional Association of New York, the Center for Employment Opportunitites, CASES and Work For Success, a Gov. Andrew Cuomo jobs initiative aimed at lowering the rate of unemployment for formerly incarcerated people. She took a job as manager of a Kimchi Taco food truck. Two years later, Lexton started to piece together a plan of action. While traveling in Canada, she tasted a taffy-like maple confection called sugar on snow. “I’m going to open up a sugar on snow truck,” Lexton recalled thinking. “A food truck can hire, train and empower” formerly incarcerated young people, she thought. The program also had an opportunity to turn the spotlight on New York City as one of the few regions in the U.S. that automatically incarcerates and treats 16-year-olds as if they’re adults.
Culinary artists among the team
Lexton then composed a top-notch team that included Annie Bickerton, who oversees operations, and two culinary artists, Roy Waterman and Jared Spafford. The team developed an eight-month mentorship program, including two months paid training, four months (higher-paid) employment and a two-month transition with continued employment and a job placement strategy for young people coming home from the system. Training covers small business management, accounting, social media marketing and essential licensing such as a mobile food vendor’s license, a food handlers’ license and a G-23 license to operate propane for mobile cooking. Other New York City food trucks have already expressed interest in hiring program graduates.
Drive Change, which is still seeking funding, recently received a good-sized grant from the mayor’s office and the city of New York. The grant subsidizes some of the wages, which cover $8 an hour for each employee. Drive Change adds $3 to bump the hourly wage to $11.
As of this spring, eight young men (seven of whom are home after having been incarcerated) have been hired to head up and brainstorm the operation:
Spafford, who comes to Drive Change from Marlowe and Daughters and Flying Pigs Farm, had no background inside corrections but was looking for a more meaningful contribution to society. His working title is culinary arts director, developing the menu, and sourcing and prepping the ingredients.
Waterman serves on the front lines as a mentor and chef. He knows from his own experience how hard it is to get a job after having been inside. “Everything looks great until I have to fill out the infamous question on the form, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Roles change daily, but one worker is in charge of the maple grilled cheese. Two more take care of the kitchen prep. Another, who has been home since 2009, is a mentor in charge of developing curriculum for Drive Change. Still another, who came to Lexton’s program from the Doe Fund says, “There’s nothing that brings people closer than food. Food transcends everything and doesn’t hold anything against you no matter what your history is.”
Why call the truck “Snowday”?
“Snowday to us reflects the liberty of a day that integrates community, a day where folks don’t go to ‘traditional’ school or work but still get out in the world and explore — connect with nature and each other — and learn,” Lexton said. “Snowday is bliss, it is freedom.”
On the subject of sugar
All of the food on board the truck has a maple syrup component to honor Lexton’s first inspirational taste of sugar on snow. How about sugar being the object of food activists’ ire?
“The menu may not be health food targeted — we are not serving juice and chopped salads — but everything is locally sourced directly from New York state farms,” Lexton said. “Sustainability and healthy product are central to our mission — even maple syrup, which one could argue is high in sugar, is a natural sugar that has proven natural health benefits. Schools may avoid sugar, but they are mostly avoiding processed products and trying to get folks to learn about how to cook better for themselves and learn about where their food comes from — two things we pride ourselves on at Drive Change.”
On this particular Saturday, the inviting menu included:
Maple grilled cheese sandwiches, with the cheese from Hammond Dairy; little skievers with greens from Hudson Valley duck farm; apples from Migliorelli Farm; and bread from micro farming sourdough starter at Last Chance Foods. Even the water was locally sourced.
All summer long, the Snowday truck will be on Governor’s Island in New York on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Main photo: Drive Change founder Jordyn Lexton on the Snowday food truck. Credit: Tal James Luther