By Jordyn Lexton, as told to Michelle Goodman
Jordyn Lexton parlayed her culinary passion and a desire to help troubled youth into Snowday Food Truck, a business with a mission as impressive as the inventive grilled cheeses it serves up. In 2015, Snowday won the Vendy Cup for best New York City food truck. We asked the 29-year-old native New Yorker how she made the leap from teaching incarcerated teenagers English to running a hip start-up that specializes in second chances.
I was a high school English teacher on Rikers Island for three years. New York treats 16-year-olds in the criminal justice system like they’re adults, regardless of the offense. They’re offered education until the age of 21, so I worked with probably 1300 young people. Most of them haven’t been sentenced yet—they’re just being detained because they can’t afford bail. I saw how destructive the system is to young people, and I was interested in developing an employment strategy for [those] coming home.
Many of my happiest moments have centered around food. It’s a way to connect. There was a culinary arts class on Rikers where a lot of my students were excelling, so I decided a mobile food source where we could be out in the community would be a great way to raise awareness about injustice inside the system.
I hadn’t worked in the food industry or in “re-entry”—when a prisoner returns to society. So in 2012, I left my teaching job and pursued both. I worked on the Kimchi Taco Truck in New York City for seven months, then in re-entry programs. In 2013, I got some great people to rally around me, and we raised money. In the spring of 2014, we launched Snowday.
I was inspired by a foundation in Peru called Niños that I’d visited in 2011. It provides two meals to more than 600 children in Cusco every single day, and generates revenue through a for-profit hotel and hostel it operates. Drive Change, the nonprofit I started that owns Snowday, runs a 12-month fellowship for young people coming home from jail. They work in our kitchen and on our truck, and the revenue from the truck cycles back into the organization to subsidize our costs.
About 20 people per year work on our one truck. We pay our workers $11 an hour and teach them transferable skills through classes like marketing, money management, hospitality, and culinary arts. We also incorporate disciplines like communication skills and community building. We’ve had a lot of people move on to other full-time opportunities, but we’re not a job placement organization. Rather, a big part of the work we do is empowering the youth to take the initiative to secure their next position. We help build their skill sets, but for somebody to excel in future environments they need that foundation within themselves.
Next, we’re going to build a garage and commissary for other food trucks. The trucks’ owners will pay rent and purchase additional goods and services they need—like ice and propane, getting their truck cleaned, renting the kitchen space. But they will be required to hire people out of Drive Change. We’ll be able to work with more people hired by more food trucks.
The goal for us is to help young people coming home get into a position where, rather than all the stop signs and dead ends they generally face, they see futures with new opportunities.