Serving second chances: NYC food truck hires ex-inmates

AP News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2015 12:38 PM
Serving second chances: NYC food truck hires ex-inmates

NEW YORK (AP) — Even amid New York City's eclectic food trucks, Snowday's concept is unusual: "gourmet lumberjack," a farm-to-table menu with maple syrup-drizzled grilled cheese sandwiches, seasoned pork ribs and fresh vegetables.

But that's not all that sets it apart. Snowday is staffed by young men and women who have spent time behind bars, most of them in the city's notoriously violent Rikers Island jail.

"I always wanted to work on a food truck. I always wanted to be that person at the grill," says Darius Jones, a 23-year-old from Harlem with a history of street fighting, one of about two dozen former inmates who have gone through the program over the last two years.

Jones was hired out of a halfway house by Snowday's founder, Jordyn Lexton, a former teacher at Rikers who grew frustrated seeing some of the same young people she taught returning to jail over and over again.

Lexton, 29, left Rikers in 2012 and founded the nonprofit Drive Change, which uses the food truck to teach the formerly incarcerated cooking, hospitality, money management and even emotional development to prepare them for re-entry into the job market.

"I witnessed a system that did not do much to help young people rehabilitate," Lexton said. "One of the few places in the jail where my students were really happy was in the culinary arts class, with the power of teamwork, camaraderie and a shared meal."

The program capitalizes on that interest and adds the discipline of a competitive business. At Drive Change's headquarters in Brooklyn, a small, busy kitchen serves as what Lexton calls a "a living classroom." In addition to learning to cook, employees engage in sessions that reinforce the qualities of a successful life: trust, love, respect for others and self-reflection.

"I became a man, in control of myself," Jones says of the program. "I was needed, I was wanted, I was loved."

Three Snowday "fellows" — as the program calls them — have gone on to jobs at food service or catering companies. One works for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and another has gone to college.

"When it comes to access to opportunity, these young people have had streets ahead of them paved with red lights, stop signs, dead ends, do-not-enters," Lexton said. "And our goal is to pave the future with all green lights."

The fellows, who wear ballcaps with logos of green traffic lights, earn a minimum wage that reaches $11 per hour once they're trained. They also end up with a vendor license.

"This is hard work. It's blood, sweat and tears," says Fredrick Coleman, a tall 29-year-old who grew up in the Bronx amid feuding gangs. He says he ended up in Rikers after years of youthful offenses including assault, drug sales, robbery and theft. "In winter, this truck is like a fridge, and in summer, it's 90 degrees and you're standing over a grill and a fryer."

Funded by private donors, grants and annual sales of about $200,000, the truck is led by a professional chef and the food comes from New York state farms that provide a steady supply of whatever is fresh. Some of it is donated.

Lexton stressed that Snowday is not just a jobs program but a real gourmet operation. She points to a slew of honors that include this year's prestigious Vendy Cup as the best food truck in New York.

Time Out New York magazine ranked the maple grilled cheese among the city's top 100 food items of 2015, describing it as "addictive ... chewy and crunchy, salty and sweet."

"It's a great grilled cheese sandwich," law professor David Kamin says after ordering the $7 creation from the truck parked in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, one of the spots where Snowday has set up. "And it's an amazing cause."

Added Coleman: "I like to tell people, 'This is food that makes you feel good in your tummy and in your heart.'"

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Online:

Drive Change: http://drivechangenyc.org/snowday