Whether you see it after a quick walk to Clark Park or an Uber ride to the Philly suburbs, the brightly colored Grassroots Food Truck stands proudly in the sunlight like it’s the promised land. It might be a chilly Sunday, but chefs Troy Harris and Kareem Wallace greet you with enough warmth to keep you going for days—and the gooey mac and cheese, sticky sweet potato fries, and herb–flecked falafel certainly don’t hurt either.
The food truck has been a dream in the making for several years, and the pandemic situation was both an impetus and an interference in its creation. Harris and Wallace have both worked at Falk Dining Cafe in Penn Hillel for over a decade, but were furloughed without pay this past fall a semester after campus closed. Thus, the Grassroots grand opening happened in early November.
When asked about how COVID–19 has impacted their business, Harris and Wallace shared that their methods of operation happen to be completely appropriate for pandemic life. As many restaurants and caterers struggle with paying rent for indoor spaces they can’t fill, the take–out market has expanded exponentially. This was the Grassroots plan all along, so not much had to be changed besides ensuring an extra level of caution and care.
The main negative impact of COVID–19 on Grassroots has been, predictably, slower business. With fewer people leaving their homes regularly, the truck has fewer customers. Without large gatherings, there are seldom opportunities for catering. However, with optimism clear in his voice, Harris expressed that the duo plans to “take Philadelphia by storm” this summer. As business and support pick up, Grassroots will not only be open five days a week, but will also spearhead programs that provide employment training and work opportunities to West Philadelphia youth.
Harris and Wallace are motivated by the changes they wish to bring to their home community. Grassroots was set to take off in spring 2018, but tragedy struck Harris’ home. His son Azir was shot in February, and remains paralyzed in both legs.
According to a previous Street article, Harris shared that “the cruel irony of it all … is how the negative effects of living in his neighborhood, the same effects that he was trying to prevent with the Grassroots project, could come around to harm his own family and hinder the project from moving forward.” Penn students and faculty helped fundraise to aid Harris and his family in paying the immense medical bills.
Harris and Wallace are two of the most grateful people in the world. In addition to wanting to better their own communities, they want to give back to one that has supported them for so many years: Penn Hillel. Harris shared that he feels inspired and connected to Jewish values such as helping others, including strangers. As an outlet providing easily accessible kosher food to the Jewish community in Philadelphia, Grassroots is truly an invaluable gift.
The intersectionality of Grassroots’ mission is impressive and inspiring. The values its founders learned while immersed in the Jewish community guide their goals: They partake in the Jewish concept of tzedakah, a form of social justice and action based on the idea of giving. Grassroots, being a nonprofit, uses most of its proceeds to put others on the right track—no matter who they are or where they come from.
It's evident just how selfless Grassroots’ founders are. When asked about their favorite food items on the menu, the pair didn’t have just one answer. Instead, they shifted focus to receiving positive feedback and taking suggestions from consumers. Wallace said they’d be open to doing themed foods, like an Israeli menu, if people would be interested. Their favorite items are whatever their eaters love, because their food is meant to spread joy to others.
Grassroots Food Truck is a vendor with values. You can donate here, and be sure to check them out on Instagram and Facebook for weekly updates and special Sunday locations—they also offer pre–order pickup and delivery.
To Troy and Kareem—thank you. You and your team have already changed more lives than you know, and Street recognizes how lucky we are to have you at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia community.