In case you haven’t looked at a newspaper or driven down Meeting Street recently, you may not realize that many people are in need, especially when it comes to getting three meals a day. We have hundreds of children on free or reduced lunch, 100-plus underfed homeless people were recently cleared out of the so-called Tent City, and a food desert stretches from downtown all the way up to Remount Road. It’s a problem bigger than any nonprofit can remedy and yet many groups and people attempt to give back. The latest of these is Roti Rolls food truck.
Cory Burke’s bright green trucks (there are two now, with one in Atlanta) are best known for dishing out zany combinations like the Thurman Merman — braised pork, kimchi and mac ‘n’ cheese — but the team behind the beloved rotis is now offering the community something else, free lunch for those in need. “We heard about this other restaurant doing it,” says Burke’s partner, Suzanne Dieter. Basically, any diner who orders at Roti Rolls can choose to pay it forward by buying themselves a roti as well as one for someone else.
“We put their name on a sticky note and stick it onto the truck, then when someone comes up who needs a lunch, they can just say they need a pay it forward meal,” says Corey. There’s no stigma or awkwardness, just one person paying for another. And the business partners say the plan has been wildly successful. Twenty some homeless people regularly visited the truck for free rotis during the farmers market season.
Now they’re taking their altruism further by launching Food Underground, a dinner series with a double mission: support the needy and bring those who have less to the table.
“With Food Underground, your ticket will buy you dinner and a ticket for someone else to attend,” explains Burke. The first Food Underground event is slated for March 25 and will support Germaine Jenkins’ Fresh Future Farm, an urban farm and store serving Chicora-Cherokee’s food desert. Gullah Chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis and Burke will collaborate on a regional menu that serves local crabs and blueberries from Blue Pearl Farms, vegetables from Joseph Fields Farm, and pork sausage from Holy City Hogs. Each ticket will subsidize a meal for residents that Jenkins invites from Chicora-Cherokee.
Burke and Dieter say some people may bristle at the idea — sitting down with strangers, especially those who living in poverty — but the Roti Rolls guru says, “I wanna be in a situation where I don’t feel comfortable. I’ve never done anything like this. Hopefully, it will start a conversation.”
The March Food Underground event is just the start. Burke and Dieter have plans for other events this spring, possibly a dinner with the remaining Tent City members. They say they came up with that idea after the city instituted its anti-panhandling ordinance. “That law directly affects food trucks,” says Burke.
The ordinance says, “No person shall knowingly distribute any items to, receive any item from, or exchange any item with the occupant of any motor vehicle when the vehicle is located in a lane of travel on the roadway.”
Burke says that while food trucks could be cited, no one is preventing them from handing out lunch if they’re parked on the side of the road. Instead, the law was crafted to prevent people from begging for cash at some of the city’s busiest intersections, the same people Roti Rolls serves free lunch to with its Pay It Forward project.
And that, he says, is what Food Underground is all about — creating awareness while sharing a meal.
Tickets to Food Underground’s Fresh Future Farm event on March 25 are $68. You can purchase tickets here.