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Food Truck* Photo: cmozz For young adults who have been to prison or jail, transitioning back to employment and community can be tough, if not downright impossible. Drive Change, a NYC-based start-up, is helping previously incarcerated youth get back on their feet — via the power of sustainably sourced food trucks.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Stroll down any Manhattan street between the hours of 11am and 2pm, and you’ll likely see a fleet of brightly-painted, cheerful-looking food trucks offering everything from falafel to cupcakes. In a city known for its fast-paced way of life, grabbing a quick meal from a mini restaurant on wheels is understandably pretty popular.

So it’s no surprise that Jordyn Lexton, the founder of Drive Change and a former English teacher, was inspired by Manhattan’s fleet of food trucks. After spending three years teaching at East River Academy, a public school connected to New York’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility, Lexton knew she had to do something to help young former inmates. Why rehabilitation through food? In addition to being nearly universally relatable (seriously, who doesn't love to eat?), food defines communities and comprises a huge and influential industry in New York and America. Lexton was also inspired by Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie, existing "social good" food trucks based in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively.

Lexton teamed up with Annie Bickerton, now the program’s Director of Development and Outreach, and the two women created a mobile rehabilitation program based around food. Lexton and Bickerton created Drive Change because they noticed how few positive opportunities existed for post-prison youth to break the cycle of incarceration. They hope working on the food truck can provide young adults with a skill set to transition away from the New York prison system and become positive members of society. Drive Change is supported by the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping former inmates pursue education and gainful employment.

The Drive Change program lasts eight months and takes every “cohort” of eight to 10 young adults through three phases — a total of about 30 people per truck per year. Drive Change is structured to run several cohorts simultaneously over the course of a year as different groups enter and phase out at the same time. Each truck will be staffed by a rotating crew including a work supervisor, head chef, cashier, and manager. During those eight months, participants gain important skills (food service, managing money and people, customer service, working with a team, etc.) and credentials and participate in off-site group counseling and mentorship. While Drive Change is not directly connected with the New York Slow Food Movement, the trucks will feature a (yet undisclosed) menu of local, sustainably produced food from New York State.

Why It Matters

New York is one of two states (the other is North Carolina) that charges 16- and 17-year-olds as adults and imprisons them in adult correctional facilities instead of juvenile facilities. Compared with those charged and incarcerated within the juvenile justice system, youth charged as adults are more likely to be physically and sexually abused, commit suicide, and perpetrate violent crimes later on. Plus, they’re 34 percent more likely to commit felonies and end up back in prison after they are released (a phenomena called “recidivism”). Overall, a whopping 89 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls who are arrested under the age of 18 re-enter the prison system by age 28.

In addition to teaching young people about gainful employment, the Drive Change trucks can act as moving billboards for issues that directly effect incarcerated youth. The Drive Change trucks will be adorned with posters and statistics to help raise awareness for Juvenile Justice in New York and Raise the Age, a campaign trying to change the New York laws that prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults instead of juveniles.

Is It Legit?

Yes. Drive Change is currently fundraising on Indiegogo to buy and set up a truck so they can launch the first program in September 2013. With influential friends like food writers Daniel Meyer and Mark Bittman, it’s likely that Drive Change will be cruising around NYC in no time. Keep up with the Drive Change initiative via their blog or follow @DriveChange on Twitter for daily updates.

Do you think Drive Change will help formerly incarcerated youth get back on their feet? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.

Drive Change Launch Film from The IS Collective on Vimeo.

Photo: cmozz

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