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An Unconventional Food Truck

Spinning plates and serving a need

Josh Maple transfers orders from Dájai Johnson in the Spinning Plate food truck to families waiting in their cars
Josh Maple transfers orders from Dájai Johnson in the Spinning Plate food truck to families waiting in their cars (Eric Ginsburg)

By Eric Ginsburg

The easiest way to explain the Spinning Plate is to start with a TV show.

“You’ve seen ‘Chopped,’ right?” Josh Maple asks as he leans against a hulking black food truck big enough to be in the UPS fleet. “I go into the cooler and that’s like the basket.”

Dájai Johnson, who’s running the truck with Maple today, doesn’t hear him. She’s too busy inside, quickly prepping an order for a family of three, but later she’ll separately use the same analogy.

Dájai Johnson serving boxed meals from the Spinning Plate food truck
Dájai Johnson serving boxed meals from the Spinning Plate food truck (Eric Ginsburg)

The Spinning Plate is the latest delivery method for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, Maple’s and Johnson’s Raleigh-based nonprofit employer, and the rotating stock of donated food keeps them on their toes. “Each day is kind of like a ‘Chopped’ situation for us,” Johnson explains as she waits for their next customer. “We utilize food from our warehouse that comes in from our food recovery program, so that’s kind of fun. I don’t get stuck with a set menu and get bored.”

Born of Need

After more than three decades in operation, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle offers a wide range of programs and initiatives aimed at alleviating hunger and food insecurity in a seven-county area in central North Carolina, from the rapidly growing cities of Raleigh and Durham to outlying suburban and rural communities. The Spinning Plate — a food truck serving free, hot meals to people who need them most — is the latest iteration of their efforts, Executive Director Ron Pringle says.

“Like many of our programs, everything was just birthed out of need,” he explains in a phone interview. “The food truck idea came about based on a gap in services that was there. That gap was families in rural communities not having access to after school programs or any kind of feeding program in the evenings. After Covid hit, it became much more prevalent for us.”

The nonprofit already owned a smaller orange and green truck, playfully dubbed “The Tastiness Machine,” which could transport pre-made hot and cold meals. But when schools switched to remote learning and tens of thousands of students lost out on those cafeteria meals, Pringle said they wanted to evolve what they offered. In late 2020, the agency secured grants from the Food Lion grocery chain and Blue Cross Blue Shield and purchased what would become the Spinning Plate.

“It’s a huge truck,” Maple explains, looking up at the vehicle towering over him. “There is a four-burner stovetop, there is a griddle, there’s a grill, there’s steam tables, a fridge, freezer, hotbox — there’s everything.”

Preparing meals in the Spinning Plate food truck
Preparing meals in the Spinning Plate food truck (Eric Ginsburg)

Maple had just hopped out the back door after parking alongside St. John United Holy Church, a small congregation in the largely rural community of Zebulon about 30 minutes east of Raleigh. The church is primarily surrounded by farmland, just down the single-lane road from a sign advertising horse-boarding and available pastures.

It’s almost midday, and a line of dozens of cars wraps around the building in a quiet queue. The overwhelming majority are women, with a pretty even split between Black and white folks behind the wheels plus a handful of Latina women. In the summer, it’s not uncommon for kids to be in some of the backseats, Maple says, but today is a school day.

Twice a month, a local organization called Extended Hands sets up a food distribution service at the back left corner of the church’s parking lot, sorting donated items like King Arthur Flour, sweet potatoes, tall stalks of broccoli, plastic containers of strawberries, and countless other ingredients into boxes. Once a month, the Spinning Plate joins them.

Volunteers assemble boxes for the Extended Hands food distribution service
Volunteers assemble boxes for the Extended Hands food distribution service (Eric Ginsburg)

Today, half a dozen volunteers assemble boxes, take curbsid orders, and fill trunks, backseats, and truck beds with produce, baked goods, and a range of other past-prime items. Then they direct the motorists around the side of the building to the Spinning Plate, where Maple and Johnson are waiting to hand them however many boxes of barbecue chicken, roasted squash, and oven fries they’d like.

Carolyn Crisp is a St. John member, and she oversees the group’s operation. Twice a month she uses a vacation day from her full-time job to be here.

“There’s an old saying that in order to see the change, you have to be the change,” Crisp says, standing next to a row of boxes. “I give unselfishly of my time to serve because that’s what it’s all about. I enjoy what I do.”

In 2020, Extended Hands distributed more than 88,000 pounds of food to more than 1,000 families at this location. Many of them have told her how much they appreciate being able to grab a hot plate when the Spinning Table is here, Crisp says.

“They absolutely love it,” she says, smiling. “We do serve a lot of elderly in the area, and a lot of times they don’t cook, When Josh [Maple] and the Spinning Plate are here, they get to have a hot meal. They come back and say, ‘Well you know, that was really good!’”

The “Chopped” Effect

Most cars pulling up to the food truck at St. John ask for two or three meals. One woman asks for six, explaining she’s picking up for three families. The biggest order today is for 20, but the first time the Spinning Plate came, one driver asked for 45. Maple hadn’t anticipated that.

“The first time I came out here, I made enough for 250, and it was gone in like an hour and a half,” he says — only half of the three-hour window they typically stay. “We ran out of food, and from then on, I was like, ‘Okay, this is not going to happen.’”

Now, he brings extra, and he always has an alternative in the truck’s refrigerator, too. (Today it’s ham and cheese sandwiches.) At some of the Spinning Plate’s smaller distribution points, the team will prepare two options. Think grilled cheese with chips or macaroni and cheese. That allows patrons to pick their order, more akin to a for-profit food truck. But here, the demand is too high for a more time-consuming approach, he says.

Still, the Spinning Plate almost never repeats a meal. That’s partly to keep it interesting and to cater to various palates in the communities they serve, but it’s also because of that “Chopped” effect. The food coming into the warehouse changes seasonally, meaning a summer salad on one visit and chili over rice for another. They once brought a mole chicken to a different site in a Latinx community that proved to be a big hit, Maple says.

“Food goes in and out all day, he says. “You just have to kind of be there. If I’m in the kitchen, I could’ve missed some ribs or something that just turned around and went right out.”

He’ll often ask the guys in the warehouse to keep an eye out for a specific ingredient he’s looking for — maybe a pricier item like cheese. But there are moments where his team is stuck with something they’re less comfortable with, such as a pile of eggplants.

The ingredients used by the Spinning Plate change from day to day
The ingredients used by the Spinning Plate change from day to day (Eric Ginsburg)

Dájai Johnson likes that it pushes them to be creative. “I’m just figuring myself out as a culinarian,” she says. “Everything is just an experiment for me at this point. I’m so early in my career.”

Johnson first heard about the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle from her dad, who volunteered with the agency. Later, she participated in its “Cooking Matters” program — one of several the organization runs in area schools — as a high school student at Wake Early College of Health & Sciences in Raleigh. That experience solidified her interest in cooking and led her to the nonprofit’s semester-long Culinary Apprenticeship Program, an on-the-job training she saw as an alternative to culinary school.

Four of the six people working in the agency’s kitchen are graduates of the in-house culinary program. Maple isn’t. He spent years working in restaurants and recently ran the famed La Farm Bakery’s food truck. He joined the team in August 2020, just a few months before the Spinning Plate launched in January 2021. He’s grateful for the opportunity to give back, and finds meaning in giving people tasty, health-conscious options with limited sugar and salt.

“We want people to enjoy the meal, because it’s not always promised,” he says.

As if on cue, Gwen Caines navigates her car up to the food truck, rolling down her passenger window. You can hear her New York accent as she excitedly talks with Maple and asks for three of the packed to-go boxes.

Gwen Caines picks up a to-go meal from Spinning Plates
Gwen Caines picks up a to-go meal from Spinning Plates (Eric Ginsburg)

“I really appreciate you, Josh,” Caines tells him. “It’s really great to see people helping out the community. It gives me goosebumps.”

Her mother attends this church and sent her to pick up a box of food, but Caines didn’t anticipate the hot meal being here. She’s never encountered the truck and wants to know all about it, asking for Maple’s business card.

“Sometimes you have people that are really struggling, and it’s cool to pick up food that they can cook, but just to have a hot meal, it’s wonderful,” she tells him. “I’m a little choked up.”

Removing Barriers

The Spinning Plate truck is one of many options that the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle has at the ready, deployed strategically based on each community’s unique need. Starting in August 2021, the truck also began a side hustle selling meals as a more standard food truck, using purchased ingredients and a scratch-made sandwich menu as a way to raise money for the organization. When Johnson and Maple leave this Zebulon church, they’ll ready the truck for one of these outings the next day at Nickelpoint Brewing Company just north of downtown Raleigh.

That’s just one of the reasons that Pringle, the agency’s director, says that the truck is already a success less than a year in.

“We’re looking to expand, because we see this as a tool that’s working,” he says. “We want to scale it up and get it into more communities.”

That could mean an additional truck, or possibly separate teams with varied schedules. Whatever will meet the need, Pringle says.

“I think it’s appreciated because of the convenience of it,” he says. “The huge benefit is the truck actually removes a barrier for many families. The impact that it has on those people’s lives gives them leverage to better their situation or improve their quality of life.”

And that’s what it’s all about, he adds.

Triangle

About the Author

Eric Ginsburg

Eric is an independent journalist based in Raleigh. His work has appeared in Bon Appétit, VICE, Wine Enthusiast, Teen Vogue, Serious Eats, Business Insider, and many other publications. He previously worked as an editor and staff writer at Triad City Beat and YES! Weekly in Greensboro and as an editor at INDY Week in Durham.