This isn't the first wily idea to come from a school bus, but it has nothing to do with an exchange of paper lunch sacks. The Grilled Cheese Bus launched at Durham's Briggs Community Garden two Saturdays ago as the area's only nonprofit food truck. Its mission is to promote community activism with low-income minority youth, one decadent, gooey grilled cheese sandwich at a time.
The refurbished school bus, painted a cerulean green and framed by a glowing red, wing-like awning, formerly traveled from farmers market to community event as Liberación Juice Station. When owner Zulayka Santiago decided to pack up her blenders, she vowed to pass on the bus to a creative, socially conscious younger generation.
Enter Elena Everett, a progressive community organizer in North Carolina since 2005 and co-director of the Grilled Cheese Bus. She left her nonprofit job a year ago to work with N.C. HEAT, a group of Wake County students advocating against the school district's controversial assignment policy that effectively resegregates the public schools. Everett also had a broader goal of building a social movement composed of low-income minority youth.
"We wanted to come up with a job training program for some of the youth that we're working with, so we can help keep them engaged," Everett says. "Once they hit a certain age, they need to get a job and help with the household. And they need to be youth engaged in some kind of social change work in their community, to have shown that commitment."
The bus project is affiliated with Action for Community in Raleigh (ACRe), a nonprofit youth job training program. Everett and co-director Dagny Brown plan to accept applications this summer from high school and college-age youth. They researched similar models, like Durham Inner-city Gardeners at SEEDS, where young people work, learn invaluable skills and participate in creating change within their communities. The program would not only provide a paid job for the youth but also offer them classes in social entrepreneurship.
"We have no illusions that it's going to be easy," Everett says. To offset monthly bus payments and other start-up expenses (though the bus had almost everything necessary already), the group has been fundraising for months to garner community support and financial donations through a Kickstarter campaign.
Members of N.C. HEAT and NC DREAM Team, a youth-led undocumented immigrant rights advocacy group, are on the advisory committee. They are volunteering to help Everett and Dagny with the cooking and with behind-the-scenes marketing and planning.
"What caught my attention was the fact that they wanted to employ colored youth," said Monserrat Alvarez, an 18-year-old community activist who says she's been organizing since she was 12. "A lot of these youth don't have the same economic status as others. I think having the opportunity to be independent and give back to their family, and having the opportunities to take leadership, that those are skills that can be used for life. [This program] will give them that extra push and the power to change things in their community and to do things on their own."
The young energy has fueled innovative collaboration from the get-go. One fundraising party included a bus tour, free samples of its first batch of homemade pimento cheese and a DJ who is also a farmer, Adam Pyburn of Simple Rhythm Farm in Rougemont.
What do community organizers know about cooking? Brown's upbringing was fueled by food. At age 7 she was already saddling up in aprons and oven mitts, mixing pesto and olive tapenade and baking muffins for her parents' catering business in California.
The warm, spicy pimento cheese slipping out of buttery grilled white bread—made by Ninth Street Bakery—is nothing less than mobile gourmet food ($5.50). It comes with a dipper of Brown's homemade basil tomato soup. Add $1 for a slab of bacon. Or stick with classic Tillamook cheddar on sourdough, with dipper, for $4.50.
While the grilled cheese idea was Everett's, Brown has pressed her creative culinary muscle into every sandwich on a menu that promises to seasonally accommodate our palates. (She even moved here from California specifically for this project.) Summer will provide "tomatoes, for sure. That's an unbeatable combination with cheddar."
Brown also plans to use local supplier Cornucopia Cheese as well as squash, greens, herbs and vegetables from Simple Rhythm and other local farms.
"I'm sort of a health nut," Brown says. "I'm working on a sandwich with seeded bread from Ninth Street Bakery with omega-3, with fresh vegetables and mild cheese. I really like greens. And whole grains provide a nice texture for grilling and nuttiness." She says she's working on having a vegan day once a month.
Once the bus starts making a profit, all of it will go to community projects and programs in the area.
"So much organizing work can be sitting in an office answering emails," Brown says. "I love the part of getting to use more of yourself to literally feed the community."
For details on how to donate to the Grilled Cheese Bus, visit www.grilledcheesebus.org and watch their Kickstarter video. All supporters get a thank you gift for donating: Give $10 and receive a free sandwich and bumper sticker; $25 gets you $25 worth of coupons; other higher-level donation gifts include a CD from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a catered event and more.