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Food truck with a mission hires at-risk New Yorkers

A group branding itself as food trucks for social justice specifically hires and trains young men and women with troubled pasts.

food truck snowday drive change Frederick Coleman (left) has found out about Drive Change by way of the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program, which hires, houses and trains formerly homeless and incarcerated men and women.
Credit: Miles Dixon/Metro

Large windows on the chrome, blue-hued shell of a converted Con Edison truck frame four young men hard at work.

The mobile machine sits along a stretch of food trucks on Governors Island while the workers get ready for the tourist-filled lunch hour. There's a small sign on top of the repurposed wood panels latticed around the truck that reads "Drive Change."


Tagged as a social enterprise that "turns red lights green" for young New Yorkers released from adult jail and prison with few opportunities, Drive Change and its founder Jordyn Lexton want to make sure young people know they can live up to their untapped potential.

Not just a business venture, Drive Change immerses young people in everything that a modern food venture requires: marketing, branding, public speaking, social networking — even how to get a food hander's license.

Drive Change spawned from a seed of an idea after Lexton spent three years teaching on Rikers Island. The revolving door of homelessness and unemployment brought about by felony convictions kept sending students back into the system, she said.

"It has to do with the system as a whole, but particularly with the issue that they're leaving with felony convictions," she added. New York State is one of two states where 16- and 17-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults.

Eventually, Lexton left her job at Rikers with the seed of a business idea that could help give troubled young men and women a second shot.

She bridged the popularity of culinary arts programs in jails and retraining programs with the food truck craze to make cuisine with a cause.

After spending some time on a food truck herself in preparation and crowdfunding, she and some colleagues were ready to roll out Drive Change's premiere truck: Snowday.

food truck snowday drive change Themed around New England's traditional sugar shacks that boiled sap into fresh maple syrup, everything on Snowday's "farm-to-food-truck" menu has a touch of locally produced sweetness.
Credit: Miles Dixon/Metro

Themed around New England's traditional sugar shacks that boiled sap into fresh maple syrup, everything on the "farm-to-food-truck" menu has a touch of locally produced sweetness — even the grilled cheese sandwich with melted aged cheddar.

Frederick Coleman, 28, has spent plenty of time behind Snowday's grill over the last four months. He found out about Drive Change by way of the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing and Able program, which hires, houses and trains formerly homeless and incarcerated men and women.

A high school drop out, Coleman said he began getting into street brawls and selling drugs on the street at 17 and made money across the country before his mother and younger siblings brought him back. But after years of unemployment, he found himself at a crossroads.

In that sense, his route to Drive Change doesn't sound entirely unfamiliar from his peers — many of whom do have to deal with the aftermath of a felony conviction — or a "black eye" as he called it.

"Lets say you're 23, 24 and you did something when you're 16," Coleman said. "You've paid your debt. Now you've got to come out and people look at you like you're less than a person."

One of the older members of the group, he still works at least three to four days a week. The truck is open three days a week, but he and his coworkers spend another two prepping food in a local kitchen.

And that doesn't include every Monday that the group spends with either Lexton or other volunteers who stop by to help them with any range of skills and issues.

With two young daughters of his own, Coleman is looking forward to the future and hopes to stay in the kitchen even after his time with Drive Change winds down.

"I can't find anything else that I love as much as food," Coleman said. "I really don't regret anything because it led me to this point."

That passion for food might be rivaled by his commitment to the organization. Coleman was just promoted as a liaison for the organization that straddles the lines between a business venture, nonprofit and its own version of a family.

food truck snowday drive change

"We spend a lot of time together both on and off the truck," Lexton added. "We know we're not just employers and employees. We have to create that family, that community. Our hope and intention is that some of the people working now are the mentors for the next class."

But to keep those classes going, the product has to be spot on in order to keep the customers coming.

Visiting from Washington D.C., Joanna Fisher, 27, paused in front of Snowday one particularly sunny Sunday afternoon after passing a handful of trucks. The reason?

"I like maple things a lot," she said, unaware of the Drive Change mission and drawn to the truck's locally made aesthetic.

"That's a cool idea — I'd never seen anything like that," she said when she learned about the young men who took her order for a grilled cheese.

After a little bit of an extended wait for her sandwich, Fisher took a bite before jumping on her bike for the 1 p.m. ferry back to Manhattan.

"Really tasty," she said as she sped toward the pier.

Where to find Snowday

While it may be on wheels, Snowday camps out at two locations every week.

The truck spends most Thursdays in Brooklyn's DUMBO at Water and Jay St. between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Snowday also is available most Saturdays and Sundays on Governors Island's food court on King Avenue.

Check Snowday's Twitter and Facebook accounts for the latest locations, hours and special events.

Learn more about Drive Change

The organization behind Snowday hopes to grow and expand to serve more customers and help more young New Yorkers in the coming months. For more information on Drive Change's business and long-term plans, visit their website at www.drivechangenyc.org.

Follow Chester Jesus Soria on Twitter@chestersoria

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