Serving up food justice on the streets of New York

A food truck with a social conscience is driving change in the lives of young ex-prisoners while also delivering a delicious and sustainable menu, writes Alana Mann.

The maple-syrup themed Snowday food truck may appear a little incongruous on a hot day at Governors Island, but it clearly hits the spot – the Sugar On Snow pops are running out the door. Or the window, actually.

An initiative of Drive Change, a social enterprise that empowers young adults coming out of jail, Snowday is a highly visible and mobile symbol of opposition to a criminal justice system in which defendants as young as 16 are charged and convicted as adults.

Formerly incarcerated youth run the food truck business, offering ‘savory and sweet locally sourced delectables featuring one-of-a-kind New York State Maple Syrup’. They are engaged in all stages of food preparation, marketing and sales, developing vital transferable skills that will equip them in their fragile transition back to the workforce, and society in general.

Founder Jordyn Lexton hatched the initiative while teaching English to detained teens on Riker’s Island. Providing a supportive transition back to society via meaningful work in the food industry struck Jordyn as a way of breaking the cycle of recidivism in New York State, where about 70 per cent of young offenders return to prison within a year of release.

The food truck concept also enables the Drive Change team to take on another broken system – the industrial food complex – by offering a locally-sourced and ecologically sustainable menu to New Yorkers.

Jared Spafford, who brings to the project his ethical food philosophy and broad culinary experience, admits that balancing the ideological principles of sustainable farming and food production with the priorities of the social mission of Drive Change is a constant challenge.

“When a dish sells really well – as in the case of our fried Brussels sprouts with apple and sour root – it is logical, from a business point of view, to keep it on the menu.

“But when Brussels sprouts are out of season, the item disappears until the following year.”

Free, fresh, organic produce from suppliers such as Randall’s Island Urban Farm, situated between Harlem and the Bronx, provides endless opportunities for culinary creativity as the Snowday team devise menu items according to what is available rather than designing the menu and then sourcing the ingredients.

Kale pesto, succotash, panzanella salad and cucumber/mint, blueberry/lavender and watermelon/basil slushies are among seasonal accompaniments to popular standards including onion rings, pickled veg, grilled maple-bacon-cheese and pulled-pork sliders.

Involving growers in the planning of a menu item leads to further food adventures. When the kitchen team envisioned a salad that required tightly bunched lettuce, Randall’s Island farm manager Nick Storrs was able to select and grow the type that fitted the bill.

Similarly, when Jared wanted to introduce a wider range of pork products to the menu he asked his colleagues at bacon supplier, Flying Pigs Farm, what they found hard to shift. The answer was ribs, which the Snowday team turned into another bestseller using – you guessed it – maple syrup.

The food truck business is as fashionable and highly competitive in New York as elsewhere. A $7 quinoa salad can be passed over for the $5 plate of nachos offered by the neighbouring vendor. In a city where food is cheap and plentiful (for most), quantity often trumps quality.

But Jared maintains that by sticking to the principle of farm-fresh food, grown and cooked well, Snowday is providing an authentic ‘farm-to-truck’ experience, supporting local New York farmers, and achieving its sustainability objectives. It also returns healthy profits back to Drive Change, fuelling further social justice initiatives.

Despite the logistical headaches of the business, which include satisfying the (often arbitrary) demands of parking officers and food safety inspectors, every challenge poses an opportunity for problem-solving. And the members of the Snowday team, who work 30 hours work a week at a good wage, shine with the pride that meeting those challenges brings.

To find out more about Snowday, Drive Change and the Raise the Age campaign against New York’s categorisation of 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system visit:

Alana Mann joined the University of Sydney in 2007 after a professional career in the media and non-profit sectors. Her teaching and research focus on how ordinary citizens get voice in policy debates regarding wicked problems such as food security and climate change. Her book Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift was published in 2014.