Drive Change at Union Square Greenmarket

March 19, 2014

Our friends at Drive Change are at the Union Square Greenmarket today, March 19, promoting their brand new food truck Snowday and maple syrup. Drive Change is a social enterprise with a fleet of food trucks serving delicious, market-inspired menus and supporting their mission to broaden opportunities for young people coming out of adult jail and prison to help lead them to crime-free lives and bright futures. We spoke with the founder, Jordyn Lexton, about what inspired Drive Change, what it is like running a food truck with no food or restaurant background and where she sees the future of the organization.

How did you get from the idea stage of Drive Change to today, with your first truck up and running?
For three years, I taught adolescent inmates (ages 16-18) years old on Rikers. During that time, I learned that NY State is one of two states (North Carolina the other) that sets the age of adult criminal responsibility at 16 years old; that means that if you get arrested when your sixteen or older you are automatically considered an adult in the system. As a result, you spend time in adult jail and you are likely to leave with an open felony conviction as opposed to a juvenile adjudication - future job and educational opportunities become restricted post release and recidivism is very high. Adult jail/prison is no place for youth - and I saw too many of my students, who were full of potential and desire to live crime free futures recycle back into the system. They told me they needed real quality jobs and I thought that a opening a business would be a good way to support them financially, provide a source of revenue for potential programing and teach transferable skills. Drive Change was born in concept in Feb 2012 - I left my full time job and set out on a journey to make it happen.
Why did you decide a food truck was the best way to connect with youth just out of prison? 
The answer to this question is tri-fold: 
1. MOBILITY AND VISIBILITY - I like the idea that the truck would be able to move to different areas and connect with the NYC public. I liked this for two reasons: 1. We could communicate advocacy around the age of criminal responsibility and other criminal justice issues to more New Yorkers to inspire community involvement; 2. The truck becomes a place for socialization and connection which is good both for the young people we are working with but also for the public at large - we believe that by being visible and hospitable we dismantle preconceived notions that people have about formerly incarcerated people. 
2. THE FOOD INDUSTRY - As Chef Roy acknowledges often food has a transformative power - it can transcend race, class and cultural divide. At Drive Change and by extension, at Snowday, we embrace the philosophy of the communal table. Over meals, people connect, forge empathy and change evolves organically. The food industry also happens to be an industry that is receptive to hiring people with criminal records - it is traditionally a place where people can rise through the ranks without formal education and still be deemed "successful" and valuable. 
3. TRANSFERABLE SKILLS - At Drive Change, we teach transferable skills through the mechanism of the food truck work. I realized early on that recidivism is not combated simply with employment; we must provide more than just a job to the young people that we work with. The food truck industry is creative, it is rooted in transferable skill learning around the areas of social media and marketing (you have to know Twitter well and keep you digital life active to be successful), money management and accounting (we will use our POS system as a tool to teach young people about financial management and small business ownership) and hospitality. Culinary arts will be taught as well, but hospitality is our pulse. It is with hospitality - the kind that, as Danny Meyer describes, exists purely when you believe the other person is "on your side" - that we will be able to guide all of our practice and create opportunities for the young people involved. 
You managed the Kimchi Taco truck to prepare for running Drive Change, what was that experience like for you? Did you have any food or restaurant experience before you started on the food truck?
I had ZERO food/restaurant experience before Kimchi Taco, unless you're counting eating. If you're counting eating, I had PLENTY of that. So, I had a taste for it, but I knew that starting a food business with no food management/business experience was beyond lofty, it was illogical. I learned the business, learned how hard it was, figured out what to do about food truck permits, networked with other food truck business owners, got my own licenses and credentials and built a foundation for what kind of food the public would enjoy. The food truck business is a volatile one and we know that even with the preparation we've done we are going to hit roadblocks, but working in the field gave me insight that makes it possible - I speak the language now. 
How did you decide on maple syrup to be the theme of your first truck, Snowday?
I had one food while traveling in Canada that really blew my mind and got me thinking about starting a food truck: it was sugar on snow. Sugar on Snow is fresh snow with hot maple syrup poured on top. It's awesome and it's really hard to find anyone outside of Canada, Vermont, Upstate NY, New Hampshire. As I began to explore maple syrup, I learned that NY is the third largest producers of the commodity - which is awesome because it allows us to source all of our syrup locally and promote the local more traveling up to Canada for amazing maple syrup! 
What are the future plans for Drive Change? Would you ideally like to expand outside of NYC?
We see ourselves growing into a fleet of food trucks. We would like to scale about a truck a year. With each truck, we can work with 30 young people per year [and] we see ourselves operating across the county, licensing the model/curriculum and expanding to multiple cities throughout the US (eventually even internationally). We also hope to be full self-sustaining in 5 years, as the sales from the truck(s) recycle back into the organization to subsidize the program costs. We are excited to grow/expand but we recognize that with growth comes shift in modality and our ability to be super hands on. So, while growth may come in time, we are heavily focused on quality over quantity. 


David Rowley of Monkshood Nursery on salad shoots, Hurricane Irene, and more

February 27, 2012
Posted in Greenmarket | Tagged farmer, interview

Monkshood Nursery’s summer selection of cherry tomatoes, herbs and greens has earned a loyal following of customers at the Columbia (Sunday) and Jackson Heights Greenmarkets. This winter, farmer David Rowley has joined the Saturday line-up at Union Square, bringing with him a terrific variety of salad shoots—the perfect greenery to add a little lift to your local winter diet. First of all, can you clear us up on the difference between shoots and sprouts? The shoots are the aerial part of the plant that grows just above the soil—just the first leaves. A sprout includes the seed, the root and beginning of the shoot. Can you explain how you grow them, and when they’re harvested? Our shoots are grown in the greenhouse. First you soak the seeds, then distribute them on trays of potting soil. Then they’re kept in the dark for an amount of time that varies, depending on the variety. Then, we expose them to the sun, and again, the length of time depends on the variety. Finally, we cut them with clean scissors, bag them up, and bring them to market. From seed to finished product, the whole process ranges from eight days to three weeks, taking less time in the summer than in the winter, and of course, depending on which kind of shoot you’re growing. It’s amazing—such a vibrant thing—to see all those seeds germinating so close together at the same time in the greenhouse. How many varieties are you growing now? Seven. And which varieties are new to you this year? Oriental spicy mustard, arugula, and mung bean shoots. And those (the mung bean shoots) are fantastic! I eat them straight off the tray. If I’m making eggs, I just sprinkle them on top for breakfast, or add them to a sandwich at lunch, and I can have them in a salad at dinner. A little goes a long way—the flavor is very intense. What gave you the idea to branch off in a new direction with these products? It was the year of the tomato blight, a really wet year, and we had to come up with products to account for the loss of tomatoes to keep both our CSA members and customers happy. So we started to think about what kind of salads we could produce. We determined by trial and error what grows well at Monkshood. What do shoots offer your diet in the months when local eating relies heavily on squash, root vegetables, grains and proteins? Nutritional information on each variety of shoot is available at the market for shoppers to peruse while they taste the different products. Mung been shoots, for instance, are a great source of protein, Vitamins B and C, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and amino acids. How do you approach selling in the market during the winter? In the winter, the temps are beneath freezing, and the salads and shoots all have to be kept above freezing at all times. When we thought about selling them the first winter we grew them, we thought ‘What do we need here (to sell at market)? Walls? Heat?’ We made an environment at our outdoor market stand that’s almost like a shop. It’s comfy for the shoots, protected by walls and kept warm enough with a heater, and it’s also comfy for us. The vibe in there feels kind of like it does in the greenhouse at the farm. My motto for customers is: ‘Try before you buy.’ Mix and match your greens—it’s like a salad bar. Or, really, a salad booth. You were hit pretty hard by Hurricane Irene this past fall, how did you adjust your business to continue coming to market? We moved the majority of our salad production from where it had been on the farm, and we’ve just about finished construction on a new greenhouse—with many thanks to the help of my neighbor, a land owner. It’s half an acre in total. We started to build the greenhouse in the end of December, and expect to put the first shoots in it in the beginning of March. Outside of the greenhouse, what’s the first sign on the farm that spring is coming? We’ll start to see green garlic coming up in the ground. See the photo below—that garlic is already peeping through!

Interview with Stephan Cantor of Deep Mountain Maple

March 11, 2011
Posted in Greenmarket | Tagged farmer, interview

How long have you been tapping maple trees?

It corresponds pretty well with how long we’ve been at Greenmarket-- since 1986. We’re going into our 27th season of selling new syrup at the market. The first market we ever did was Union Square Friday. That first year, we just sold for a few weeks in the spring.  We didn’t know how we’d do at the market, but we expanded our season over the next few years, and then it became a year-round business. We’ve been there on Fridays ever since.

How many trees do you tap?

Over 5,000 taps, we’ve done some expansion this year, and we’ve taken on a new sugar bush just up the hill from us, it’s on the same hill our bush lays across. It’s a beautiful piece of land which belongs to a friend and neighbor.

When we first started, we sugared from a sleigh pulled by horses, and collected the syrup in buckets. The next year we bought the piece of land we now call Deep Mountain, and we eventually switched over to tubing, because with thousands of taps to collect from, to try and run an efficient business on the sled…it was impossible to keep up with production.

Can you describe the process of ‘sugaring’?

Sugaring—you either love it or you don’t. You get real connected to the change of seasons this time of year. And you go kind of crazy—the sap is controlling our lives right now! You get all the taps set up, and then you just wait. The thing is, sap is really unstable, as soon as it comes out of the trees micro organisms will start breaking it down so you want to boil it as soon as possible.

Tapping is the process of putting a hole in tree with a spout, attached to a tube. Sap runs through the tubing into yet a bigger tube, and then an even bigger tube (the mainline) which runs to the sugar house where the sap empties into thousand-gallon tanks. The tubing is just 1.5 inches wide, so I always tell people it’s like you’re plumbing the woods.

In the sugar house, the sap boils down in two pans which are six feet wide by 16 feet long. They rest on a framework called an arch which is centered around a wood fire.

You want to boil the sap as hot and as fast as you can.

It takes about 40-60 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The whole process is just simple reduction, reducing sap to concentrate. The specific density of the syrup is measured with hydrometer.

When do you know that the sap is ready to run?

Well, you’ll see the first sap in the tubes-- it’s the miracle of spring and the miracle of sugar maples. The Sugar Maples is a deciduous tree that stands dormant all winter.  Its molecules are surrounded by carbon dioxide gas (not water like most trees) so what happens in the Northeast in the early spring, is that you get a succession of days when it warms up above freezing, but at night it drops back down below freezing. So you’ve got this thawing and freezing thing going on. It causes the gas to expand, and escape out through the branch tips of the trees. At night when it freezes again, the gas retracts. The tree then acts like a giant pump, pulling water from the ground and minerals from the soil to create sap, which is the food for the new leaves that will be sprouting soon. It so happens that the sap early in the spring has lots of flavor compounds, and they’re all good—nothing astringent, that’s why you can boil it. The sap has a very high sugar content, 1.5%-2%. Later in the spring, once the budding on the tree has started to occur, the tree releases new compounds in the sap, changing the sugar content, and making it increasingly bitter. When the trees are about to bud is when you stop collecting sap. I am no scientist, I may not get this all perfectly exact, but this is how the process has been explained to me.

How many gallons of syrup will you produce in a good year?

We hope for a season that’s five to six weeks long. This year we hope to make 1700 to1800 gallons of syrup, but that’ll be a good year if we do. There are variables that do affect our production season—foremost, how much precipitation we’ve had in the last year. If we’ve had a lot of moisture in the year leading up, that’s really good, the more water there is in the ground, the better it is for the run. Snow cover is good too. That’s going to keep the conditions colder, longer. What we want is to extend this transition into spring, which drives some of us crazy! Honestly what I really wish is that the sun would come out and the daffodils would come up in my yard, and I could sit on the porch.

But what I have to wish is that we get a big wet snow in April. Low pressure systems give you get the best runs, so you have to wish against your intuition.

You were able to attend Terra Madre in Tourin, Italy this fall as a Greenmarket delegate. What was your experience like there, and how has it affected your business?

We had a tremendous experience at Terra Madre. Howie and I were really moved by the whole thing—what Slow Food is doing, the trip to Italy, and learning about the transformative work that people are doing all over the planet. I was particularly struck by this simple idea that there are chefs and food activists and people doing small-scale food production all over the world. If you can get 5,000 of them together, and provide some loose structure, they’ll talk to each other and figure things out. Every single person there is doing something interesting. I guess the word that comes to mind is affirmation. Sometimes, doing what we do, making syrup the old fashioned way, because we believe in the process, we face some intense pressures. Maple sugar making is under some real pressure to change. Most of it has to do with new technologies, so we struggle to keep doing it the way believe in. Sometimes we look at each other and say ‘Are we crazy?’ We truck it all the way down to Greenmarket, instead of selling the business to Proctor and Gamble. I never doubt what we do, but sometimes I wonder, you know, if we aren’t kind of nuts. First, I’m so grateful to Greenmarket for thinking of us to represent the organization at Terra Madre, and we’re also just so grateful for the opportunity to go there and be reminded that we’re not the only ones doing this kind of work. It’s really important to be reminded of why you do what you do, when a lot of the time it feels like a drop in the bucket.

Just in terms of the big picture, the view of what Greenmarket has accomplished in 35 years is astounding. I think of the founding farmers who were the true pioneers, and even 27 years ago when we started, we were on the cutting edge of this awareness about where our food comes from. Every single person, three times a day, can make a real choice about our food system! Terra Madre helped me to know all this with more certainty.

We brought that spirit home, and we feel like it’s re-inspired us to do what we do at Greenmarket and how we run our farm, and how think about the choices we have to make going forward.

Did you meet any other maple syrup producers while at Terra Madre?

We were the only maple syrup producers at Terra Madre.  It was the indigenous people in the Northeast who first figured this [the process of tapping and reduction] out, and how to do it, and they taught the European colonists. We meet people at the market all the time who don’t know what maple syrup is. That’s been a big part of our whole stint at the market—explaining just what maple syrup is, how it’s produced, and how it’s graded (it’s graded by color, lighter batches are more delicate but more complex than the darker grades). I’ve explained many times over it in English and in Spanish, that’s the extent of my language skills!

You used to work with Bread and Puppet Theatre, is there any connection between your life as a puppeteer and the work you do now?

Howie and I met at Bread and Puppet, I wouldn’t be in Vermont were it not for Bread and Puppet. There is a sugar bush on the Bread and Puppet farm, and that’s where Howie sugared just before we moved to Deep Mountain. The Schumanns, who founded Bread and Puppet, had a sugarbush behind their house on the old farm, and no one was doing anything with it so Howie asked if he could sugar it. I also learned that art is food, it feeds you, that’s why it’s called Bread and Puppet—look we all need to eat and we all need art in our lives.

Recent Posts



More tags