One month ago, Bon Appétit Management Company furloughed Falk Dining Commons chefs Troy Harris and Kareem Wallace without pay for the fall semester. Now, the two co-workers are getting ready to launch their Kosher food truck, Grassroots, in hopes to support West Philadelphia youth education and employment prospects.
The food truck will be stationed near Clark Park and serve dairy foods such as macaroni and cheese, tomato basil soup, quesadillas, chili fries and "build your own" pasta options. Grassroots will use some of its proceeds to provide vocational training and employment opportunities for underprivileged students and young adults in West Philadelphia, in addition to partnering with organizations such as the Netter Center and local Philadelphia public schools.
For Harris and Wallace, Grassroots is more than just a food truck. It solidifies their ambition for a better future for themselves and subsequent generations of West Philadelphians.
“Our mission is to help rebuild in our communities, one meal at a time and join in with other alliances to help us get this project up and rolling and more. Grassroots is more than just a food truck. It’s social engagement,” Harris said.
With Grassroots's profits, Harris said he hopes to create an online “resource bank” to connect students and young adults in West Philadelphia with employment opportunities at local companies such as barber shops as well as fund vocational training for students interested in fields like electrical engineering and computer science.
“We want the youth to know that when you come out of training or school, Grassroots is going to hand walk you to a job with a contractor and let you know what hope is with a hands on skill that you can take with you," he said.
Harris added he hopes Grassroots will be able to help students without a high school diploma or college degree, as well as young people with a criminal record who are struggling to find a job that pays a livable wage.
Wallace likened Grassroots to an “incubator” that provides West Philadelphia youth a safe space and opportunity to cultivate job skills.
Harris and Wallace, who have been working alongside each other in Falk Dining Commons for more than a decade, said that Grassroots was an idea six years in the making. While the truck was originally slated to open at the beginning of the summer according to its Facebook page, the pandemic caused a series of setbacks that delayed the opening process.
Harris's struggle to support his family, living paycheck to paycheck for over a decade, brought a great sense of urgency to the Grassroots initiative. Two years ago, Harris’s 18-year-old son Azir was shot near his home in South Philadelphia, prompting multiple fundraising efforts by Penn students, faculty, and other members of the Philadelphia community. His son is now paralyzed in both legs.
“We're trying to change lives, to put a lot of these young youths, young adults, single mothers, single parents, parents, anybody, on the right track,” Harris said.
Harris added that kosher food is not readily accessible for Penn students living in West Philadelphia. Through Grassroots, both Harris and Wallace are looking to give back to the Jewish community, which they described as a key support system for them when they worked at Falk Dining Commons.
“By serving Kosher food, we’re giving that cross barrier of different nationalities that helped me through my struggles in life," Harris said. "I worked at the Hillel for 20 years, and they were my support system — not the company I worked for, but the Jewish community.”
As a testament to their deep connections with the Jewish community, many of the members that sit on Grassroots’s board of directors are Penn graduates and current students who met Harris and Wallace at Falk Dining Commons.
A fundraiser started by 2019 Wharton graduate Michelle Lyu in 2018 has raised nearly $10,000 for Grassroots. Many donors were members of the Jewish community, including Hillel students and graduates.
One of those members is 2019 College graduate Gregory Whitehorn, who met Harris and Wallace at Falk Dining Commons when he was an undergraduate student and now sits on Grassroots' board of directors. During his four years at Penn, Whitehorn developed a close relationship with Harris, who he described as outgoing and ambitious in spite of the challenges he has faced.
“We come from seemingly different walks of life, but really in so many ways, we’re the same. We consider each other to be family at this point," Whitehorn said. "You just realize over time that there's these barriers put up between people just because they may look different, but all it takes is a conversation to knock those things down.”
Similarly, College senior Reginald Boateng, who sits on the Grassroots board of directors and manages its finances, has been working on the project since he met Harris in Falk Dining Commons his first year at Penn. He said he remains amazed at Harris's kindness and willingness to get to know new people.
“Sometimes, we'll be having meetings and people would just be crossing by, and Troy will always be saying ‘hi’ to everyone," Boateng said.
Harris sees Grassroots as a way to combat the gentrification that Penn has caused by the purchasing and development of property in West Philadelphia.
“I can walk all around the Penn section of Philadelphia, see them building new buildings, but I've never seen nobody from the local communities on a scaffold. Not on the job, none of them,” Harris said. “Once they build and buy our community up, where are we? Where do we go next? We're not going to the main line and getting a big $500,000 property.”
Despite being furloughed without pay this fall, Harris and Wallace remain hopeful that they can continue to bring kosher food to the Jewish community and support young people's education and employment in West Philadelphia.
“I feel like Grassroots can be the limelight that allows the youths to get a better future," Harris said.