This food truck is driving change for youth just out of prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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Jordyn and her sweet food spread. (photo courtesy of Jordyn Lexton)

In her English class at East River Academy one day, a school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island, Jordyn Lexton had her students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).”

After the group discussion, one student asked if he could be an architect someday. She told him yes. Another student who had been sleeping throughout the class raised his head and shouted, “Hell no! No disrespect, Miss, but you’re selling dreams.”

In that moment she realized that most of these kids would never actually have a chance to live their dreams—not because they didn’t have the potential, but because the system was broken.

Her students were all 16, 17, and 18 years old, yet charged as adults in the New York state prison system, one of only two states to do so. And even if they were lucky enough to leave East River Academy with a high school diploma or GED, the chances of them ending up back in jail were high—70% would return, in fact. Future employment and further schooling would be also tough due to their felony record.

“Regardless of what I was doing inside the facility, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to literally stop selling dreams and actually create channels for young people to have a successful reentry experience,” Jordyn says.

So she left teaching at the beginning of last year to start working at the Correctional Association of New York on the Raise the Age campaign. She got interested in prison reentry, and afterward, worked at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

An unabashed foodie, Jordyn then had an idea: what if she opened a food truck in NYC and hired her students once they got out of jail? The idea stuck with her. So she started working at Kimchi Taco Truck to learn the ins and outs of the mobile food world.

“If knew if I was asking people to pick up the truck, drive it to a site, turn it on, get it going, do sales, clean up, bring it back—I wanted to know what that entailed and felt like. And it’s not easy by any means,” Jordyn says. “The knowledge of that experience gives me an edge.”

Food with a side of social justice

While organizations like Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie have been touting the therapeutic benefits of culinary arts for a while now, Drive Change is really the first of its kind.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to take the program and put it onto wheels,” she says.

One goal is that Drive Change will play parent to a bevy of other food trucks. Its first child, set for a soft launch at the end of November, is Snowday, inspired by the time Jordyn was 12 years old and had “the most amazing food in her life” on a family trip to Canada: maple syrup over snow. Other mouthwatering items on the menu include maple bacon Brussels sprouts and pulled pork bacon maple sliders, among others.

“I don’t want someone to come up to me and say, ‘This tastes like it has a social mission,’ ” she says. “I want you to walk away having this amazing food experience and then later, if you find out it’s one of the trucks by Drive Change, then you feel even better about the fact that you contributed to a lofty social goal.”

Although it won’t hit you over the head, that lofty social goal is the main entree. Jordyn envisions hiring a cohort of eight to ten formerly incarcerated youth, and training them over a period of eight months on everything from how to use propane gas to social media marketing to accounting.

The overarching goal of Drive Change is expansion: to train more kids who can use the skills they learned to get a job or open their own food truck; to make Drive Change the go-to caterer for social good events in the NYC area; and to help start lots more trucks in other cities.

The journey hasn’t always been easy for Jordyn, but it’s always felt right.

“If you have a good enough idea and the experience to know what it takes to bring it to life, and the ability to get investment from a number of community stakeholders, then I truly believe there’ll be enough support and noise whatever the hurdles,” she says. “And something positive is going to come out of it.”

Interested in seeing how this story progresses? Follow @DriveChangeNYC and @Snowdaytruck on Twitter, and like Drive Change and Snowday on Facebook. 

Drive Change is always looking for partners. If you know a corporate sponsor who might be interested in events or catering, or a food business interested in developing or donating menu items in exchange for promotion, get in touch with jordyn@drivechangenyc.org.

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