After being an English teacher for three years at Rikers Island East River Academy High School, Jordyn Lexton came to a grim assessment. “Way too many of my students, who were full of potential, recycled back into the system,” Lexton says. The 28-year old had also noticed that many of these students thrived in culinary workshops offered at the city jail.
“The ability to create something and to give it to someone delivers a sense of pride that you didn’t otherwise see inside a really harsh environment,” she recalls.
Sticking to her convictions, Lexton quit her teaching job and took a chance. Two years later, she started Drive Change, a social enterprise that operates food trucks run by former incarcerated young people. During the 8-month training, the youth employed do not only learn how to operate a food truck. They take culinary classes, social media marketing classes as well as accounting and management ones.
“We want to teach them transferable skills than they can take with them when they move on to their next job,” Lexton says.
The program is a beacon of hope in a system that is focused on punishing young convicted criminals. New York City is one of only two states that sentences 16 and 17 year olds as adults rather than juvenile. “The system is focused on punishment and it’s very detrimental to young people,” says Lexton.
More than six out of 10 of the youth offenders return to prison within a year of release according to a 2011 study by New York Office of Children and Family Service. Many of those young people leave jail with a felony record, which makes it really hard for them to find employment.”
“When you don’t think that you’re future can be bigger or brighter then you fall back into what you know which tends to be illegal activity,” Lexton says.
Drive Change hopes to offer a way to break that cycle. Last April, the non-profit launched its first food truck, named Snowday. The seasonal menu, which currently includes items such as maple grilled cheese and maple Brussels sprouts, is all maple syrup based, an idea Lexton got during a visit to Quebec, Canada. All ingredients are also locally sourced.
“I had never eaten anything with maple, actually nothing that I’m making here I ever ate,” said Darius, 23, one of Snowday current eight trainees, who preferred not to give his last name to keep his past private . “And the crazy thing is now when I go home I make it for my family and my friends who never had it either. And they love it!” he smiles.
Unlike many re-entry programs that have to seek grants to survive, Snowday is financially self-sustainable: each dollar raised by the food sales is re-invested into the program, mainly to pay the $11 hourly wage of the first Snowday team.
“For the program to be successful, we have to be a successful business,” Jordyn says. “We want costumers to come back because we’re good not only because they want to try the social mission food truck.”
If things go well, Drive Change will launch more food trucks in the coming years. Lexton is even planning to train employees that could work for a regular food truck.
“Eventually we’d like to put a Drive Change food truck in every city of this country,” says Drive Change chef Roy Waterman.
Drive Change may not offer the solution to youth recidivism. But it does offer a positive way to deal with it—and hopefully put the issue on people’s radar in a visible way. “It is the possibility for someone to grasp concrete employment and transferable education,” Lexton says, “ and as the truck goes to different neighborhoods, we can start talking about this issue with New Yorkers.”
To see where Snowday will be next, check their Twitter account.