Driving Change Beyond the Kitchen

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The way to a person’s heart might be through their stomach. Across the country, culinary training programs are feeding the hearts of communities while improving the lives of otherwise overlooked residents.

“Food is a fairly special tool, which holds the power to connect us to people from distant places and different beliefs,” says Jordyn Lexton, founder of a New York City food truck nonprofit called Drive Change, which awards paid culinary fellowships to formerly incarcerated youth.

Lexton, who worked as a teacher on Riker’s Island for three years, witnessed firsthand the glaring flaws present in the justice system. These many abuses and inequities spurred her to begin working with victims of the legal process.

“New York is one of two states that, at 16 years old, a person is automatically considered as an adult in the system,” Lexton explains. “So many young people are moving through the legal system, and resurfacing with felonies as opposed to sealed juvenile records.”

In addition to the lifelong social stigma that originates from their felony criminal status, these young people face inordinate professional obstacles on the road to becoming productive members of society.

Most places of employment won’t consider hiring someone with a criminal history, while the overall community tends to spurn those who carry the status of felon. The insecurity that these individuals often battle as a result of such stigmatization may lead to a repetition of their original negative behavior–only furthering the cycle of punishment and societal rejection.

To help break that loop, Lexton used her time spent in the food truck business and familiarity with the legal system to launch Drive Change, which provides professional experience and community-building opportunities to young former inmates.

Though the truck hires referred fellows for “front of house” and “back of house” positions, a major aspect of Lexton’s philosophy in utilizing the food truck model lies in its lack of an actual physically separated back of house.

Through this structure, the active face-to-face connection with the public affects every position in the truck. Lexton feels confident that Drive Change is raising awareness about injustice inside the system while “humanizing” the experience for the program’s fellows and customers. In this respect, Drive Change takes full advantage of its ability to literally spread the organization’s message by way of their truck’s mobility.

Beyond the formerly incarcerated youth that the organization targets, a concerning number of other systemic victims work without assistance against societal and professional hindrances.

In Washington, D.C., an organization called DC Central Kitchen aims to bring back humanity to the treatment of these neglected citizens on an impressively broad scale.

According to Associate Communications Director Erica Teti-Zilinskas, DC Central Kitchen uses food as a tool “to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.” They recruit men and women who have been marginalized, or have “suffered from abuse, experienced homelessness, are chronically unemployed, or are recently returned citizens.”

In order to help these people rebuild their lives and begin a path to self-sufficiency, DC Central Kitchen runs a rigorous 14-week training program that focuses on “knife skills and life skills.” Because restaurants account for approximately 60,000 jobs in the area, the Kitchen asserts that the culinary industry promotes a structure that is curtailed specifically for their program’s students and graduates.

“Food and the kitchen really lend themselves to teaching transferrable skills,” agrees Lexton, who also believes that working in a kitchen facilitates teamwork skills and productivity in pressured environments. “It’s the kind of focus that is required inside a kitchen setting.”

Lessons pertaining to hygiene, independence, and creativity arise often. According to Lexton and Teti-Zilinskas, the kitchen teaches a powerful lesson in working with others while pushing oneself.

Meanwhile, explains Lexton, when compared to other industries, the culinary arts are far less restrictive when it comes to hiring and working amongst people who have been impacted by the justice system. Thus, the culinary world provides a more open playing field to people who have been mistreated or abandoned by the justice system and government.

Drive Change aims to create in their fellows “agents of social change,” who can “share their stories and connect with customers, revealing their humanity while building a community that recognizes the systemic issues which create these kinds of outcomes to begin with.”

While DC Central Kitchen does advocate for a more diverse range of societal outcasts, both organizations bring to light the need for humanity in the treatment and assimilation of their students.

Homeless people, the unemployed, and former inmates attract certain levels of revulsion and distrust from ignorant bystanders; both Drive Change and DC Central Kitchen hope to transform the community’s attitude towards these disenfranchised groups.

Though the effort and skill building on the behalf of these marginalized people lends to an overall improvement of their circumstances, the most important aspect of the process lies in the involvement of the general community. Lexton and Teti-Zilinskas both believe in the necessity of altering the community’s view of marginalized groups in order to promote large-scale social and legal change, as well as a more diverse and accepting business world.

“Part of our role in the community,” explains Lexton, “is in fostering that kind of industry, and really being able to think about how business can operate as an agent of social change.”

If victims of the system can tune out negativity and make their way back into the workforce, they find that the process of carving a place for themselves in the world becomes less challenging.

By providing opportunities through which people can step up and make personal changes in their own lives, organizations like Drive Change and DC Kitchen allow others to experience the power of standing beside one another as equals and supporters.

“We need to meet people where they are, without judgment,” says Teti-Zilinskas. “That’s just good business.”