Update: 11:20 a.m., Nov. 20. This article has been updated to correct the kosher authority that oversees the food truck.
After six years of countless setbacks, personal tragedies and a whole lot of helping hands, Grassroots Food Truck — also known as The Chosen Mitbach — served hot kosher meals for the first time on Nov. 8. The maiden voyage took place at Clark Park in West Philadelphia, just under a mile from the Penn Hillel building where chefs Troy Harris and Kareem Wallace met one another and first conceived of their food truck/community hub. That’s also where they first became acquainted with many of the people who helped bring Grassroots to the road.
“All these years that we’ve been doing this, a lot of people would have gave up,” Harris said. “But we had this strong support system, and I just want to say, that was my drive, to keep pushing this.”
Harris and Wallace — both Black, both West Philadelphia natives — met in the kitchen of the Penn Hillel. The two men became close, and as their friendship deepened, so did their popularity with the Penn students who frequented the Falk Dining Commons on the first floor of Hillel’s Steinhardt Hall. Over the years, when Harris, Wallace and the other dining commons workers needed assistance — in labor fights, in individual calamities — Penn students, Jewish or not, pitched in. When Harris’ house burned down in 2008, students successfully petitioned the food services provider that employed Harris to up their contribution to his family’s recovery effort. When Harris’ son, Azir, was paralyzed in 2018, shot five times, it was Penn students, like Wharton graduate Michelle Lyu, who helped raise thousands of dollars towards Azir’s recovery.
In the aftermath of having successfully agitated for higher wages, aided by Hillel regulars, Harris and Wallace decided that they wanted to have a project of their own. In 2014, the concept of a food truck, one that would serve kosher meals while functioning as a resource for young men in their own communities, became an animating force in their lives. The project was met with great enthusiasm, and they raised thousands of dollars via online fundraisers, aided by students and a local businessman named Gary Koppelman, who lent the men space to store their food truck when it was finally brought to life.
But as the years passed, the drudgery and cost of acquiring permits slowed the roll of the Chosen Mitbach, and when Azir became paralyzed, there were simply other things to focus on. The project languished.
Greg Whitehorn, who graduated from Penn in 2019, was initially drawn to the Hillel by the prospect of meeting other Jewish students. One of the things that kept him coming back was the delicious food in the dining hall. When he met the men behind that food, he was ready to help them with whatever they needed. Consequently, Whitehorn, working with other Penn students, has helped Harris and Wallace with licensing, permits, marketing and social media, even after his graduation from Penn. On Nov. 8, Whitehorn was on hand at Clark Park, helping out as a cashier. Harris and Wallace have “big dreams” for what Grassroots can be, Whitehorn said.
“Troy and Kareem are both very inspirational people,” said Whitehorn. “The hope with Grassroots, it was always to have a social justice mission, and part of it was trying to employ Philadelphians from traditionally under-served communities and just bring light to different issues that they may face.”
Elana Burack serves on the Grassroots advisory board with Whitehorn, having begun her association with the group as an undergraduate and carried that into her time as a master’s student at Penn. At home with her family in South Carolina, taking classes remotely, she wasn’t able to make The Chosen Mitbach’s debut, but she hopes to get a taste of what she’s been working on in the coming months. Even from afar, she can’t help but gush about the project and its principals.
“Every time I’m on a call, I walk away feeling so inspired and humbled,” Burack said. She feels proud to contribute to the creation of a Black-owned business, and to strengthen ties between Jewish students at Penn and the people who call West Philadelphia home.
Hannah Bookbinder, an academic coach and college admissions consultant in Penn Valley, first heard about the project through her teenage son, Zachary, who read about Azir’s paralysis. Since then, Bookbinder has come to consider Harris and Wallace friends, and serves on the Grassroots advisory board. Though she too couldn’t make it to the opening, Harris and Wallace’s perseverance inspired her and her family from afar; she spoke to Harris on the phone after they’d packed up for the day on
The experience has been “eye-opening for me as a human being,” Bookbinder said.
The Jewish community that rallied around the truck has been out in full force at the first two days of Grassroots (they rolled out again on Nov. 15), and to Harris, it’s only a continuation of the support that he and Wallace have received since the beginning. They’ll need it now, too; back in August, they were furloughed without pay from their jobs at Falk Dining Commons.
There are permits pending for Lower Merion, but in the meantime, Sundays for Kareem Wallace and Troy Harris will mean serving up Keystone-K-certified kosher veggie burgers, quesadillas and the Grassroots Signature Smack You Back Macaroni, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the kitchen where it all began.