For the Belle Harbor neighborhood in New York’s Hurricane Sandy-devastated Rockaways, the parking lot of the now shuttered Waldbaum’s grocery store has become a makeshift mess hall and the first station on the slow climb out of disaster. FEMA is there, and so is the Red Cross. The National Guard is distributing water, blankets, and MREs.
Across the lot, crowds line up for relief meals of a very different sort. Rickshaw Dumplings, and KorillaBBQ, two stars of New York’s food truck revolution, are here to distribute lunch as part of one of the more unique aid efforts to appear in the wake of this calamity.
That food trucks would be part of the recovery work—given the gas shortages—is slightly surprising. But how these trucks arrived in this part of Belle Harbor makes the story that much more unlikely.
In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, crewmembers (or execs to you and me) at the New York-based airline JetBlue were searching for ways of helping some of the area’s hardest hit communities. Building on an existing relationship—born out of a collaboration at the ceremony marking JetBlue's new terminal opening at JFK—the airline contacted Belgian Waffle truck Wafels & Dinges, says JetBlue corporate communications manager Alison Croyle.
“We reached out to them," Croyle explains, "and from there it grew to us reaching out to the larger organization—to David Weber and the New York City Food Truck Association, many of whose members were happy and eager to step up and help out with this effort."
And how. The first day saw 11 trucks going to four locations in the Rockaways, Staten Island, and Hoboken. Over the next 96 harrowing hours, JetBlue sponsored the distribution of 25,000 meals by 20 trucks throughout the region.
As the benefits, and tasty meals, of using food trucks for relief became apparent, others joined in—Chase Bank has been underwriting the KorillaBBQ Truck’s efforts and the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City has also donated cash to keep these trucks where they’re needed most. A pair of further fundraising efforts on Indiegogo has netted nearly $50,000 more. (You can find out which trucks are where through the NYC Food Truck Association's Twitter feed, here, or by calling 311.)
The good news, though, doesn't stop with those receiving the food. Like many other local businesses, these trucks suffered crippling losses in the aftermath of Sandy. Much of Lower Manhattan’s Financial District was darkened by power outages, which scattered many workers and food truck customers far afield. The chance to claw back some of that lost revenue, to do well by doing good, is appreciated, not just by those receiving the food, but also those making it.
Taking a short break to refill the generator of the KorillaBBQ Truck (the only electricity in his life, since his apartment is still without power), truck manager Brian Park looks tired but happy. “We wanted to get out here as fast as we could. Finding fuel hasn’t been easy. The truck is diesel, the generator is gas. It’s still difficult. Then we come out here where we’ve been serving up to 900 people a day. “
Beverley, a home health aide who asked that we not use her last name, sits on a parking barrier next to the Korilla Truck eating one of their signature Korean BBQ tacos—her first. Soon she’ll be carting bottles of water back up the seemingly endless flights of stairs to her apartment, which hasn’t had power, water, or heat for the last week, and probably won’t for another. “I’m one of the lucky people," Beverly says. "I didn’t lose everything. I didn't lose my life. I watched the storm that night—watched the water from the ocean come up and flow past my apartment building until it kissed the water from the bay. I still see the beauty of this area, but I also see the pain out here.”
For a brief moment though, her worry seems to ebb: “These food trucks—these people are really fantastic. I’m a foodie, but I’ve never had this. The other day, there was a soul food truck, and there was one that gave us homemade donuts.”
Before popping back into the truck to keep serving up tacos, Park says, “It feels good that we got to feed and help out all the people. Give them some good food and people get happy—get a little smile on their face.”
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[Images: Matthew Kronsberg; JetBlue; mashup by Joel Arbaje]
(Ed note: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote to Korilla truck owner Edward Song, when it was actually given by truck manager Brian Park.)