The Spinning Plate food truck stands out as you pass it. With its bright blue and green plates painted on a black background, and the friendly face of Dajai Johnson smiling out from a side window, the truck exudes a warm welcome.
But the Spinning Plate is not your average food truck. It’s part of Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s initiative to address hunger in neighborhoods in the Raleigh area by bringing free hot meals to the places that need them most.
And it does so with a support system of restaurants and grocery stores, which donate surplus food to the organization. The Spinning Plate then supplements that supply with fresh produce raised at the company’s farm. Inter-Faith’s kitchen prepares the meals at its headquarters in Raleigh before sending them out on the truck.
“Inter-Faith has so many different programs, our culinary apprenticeship program, our farm, our food recovery program — and they all kind of culminate into this one program,” said Laura Rice, communication and media manager for Inter-Faith.
The Spinning Plate is an extension of the organization’s original food truck concept but can serve more menu options. Meals can be anything from chicken with rice and vegetables to soups and brie and cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches.
The truck, which formally launched in mid-April, services an area spanning seven counties in the Raleigh area: Wake, Durham, Orange, Chatham, Johnston, Nash and Edgecombe counties. It usually operates one to three times a week, and is generally invited by local churches, schools, soup kitchens and charities. The organization relies on its hosts to advertise that it will be in a particular neighborhood.
“We’ve done over 7,000 meals since we started at the beginning of February,” said Josh Maple, the food truck manager.
The Spinning Plate is one of many initiatives Inter-Faith Food Shuttle uses to combat hunger in North Carolina. In the seven counties the organization serves, 257,210 people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and 1 in 5 children in North Carolina are at risk of hunger, according to their website.
All of this means that with a population that is 15.9% food insecure, North Carolina is the 10th hungriest state in the nation.
A culinary beginning
Johnson is the youngest of a team of cooks who work with Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. She’s a graduate of Inter-Faith’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program, known as CAP.
She first discovered Inter-Faith Food Shuttle as a freshman in high school in 2010, and she immediately fell in love with its mission. She always loved cooking and food, and she loves sharing her passion with others in whatever way she can.
“My role model growing up, she couldn’t read or write, but she could cook, and I guess that always stuck with me,” Johnson said.
When she graduated from high school in 2014, she learned about CAP, which aims to provide a culinary education for disadvantaged youth in the area.
“It started off as a program that helped low-income people; like maybe they had a risky path, and it helped them establish themselves as a productive citizen,” she said.
Today, the program’s graduates are placed at restaurants and charity organizations throughout the area.
Johnson joined the program in January 2020. A few months later, COVID changed the world and brought her time at CAP to a halt.
“Our staff had to go into overdrive basically, in prepping meals that were going out to schools and families,” Rice said.
The pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Johnson. Although CAP closed in March to allow its staff to help meet the increased demand for food, Johnson and her fellow students were invited to help with different initiatives.
Johnson’s involvement in the kitchen during the critical days of the pandemic became an opportunity to learn and grow.
“Dajai never missed a beat. She came in every day and stuck through the whole thing,” Rice said.
When the pandemic settled down, Johnson finished her time at CAP and joined the team as a full-time employee. And when trials with the Spinning Plate began in February, Johnson quickly became involved in assisting Maple.
Typically, a CAP graduate will spend several years after graduation interning or working part-time, either with the organization or in restaurants. Johnson was able to accelerate to working a full-time position at Inter-Faith within a year.
“Since it was a pandemic, before I even graduated CAP, I just kind of started cooking with the staff as staff, part-time,” Johnson said. “As people had to drop out for whatever reason, I got more and more responsibility, where I could work my way up into being a full-time employee.”
Johnson has embraced the learning opportunities at Inter-Faith’s kitchen.
“The kitchen is basically like a family,” Johnson said. “Everyone shares the knowledge of what they know about.”
Prepping meals on the Spinning Plate
On days the food truck is going out, Maple and Johnson work together to create menus and prepare meals for the day.
“He might have a menu that he already has planned, or me and him might look into the warehouse, see what they have, have a brief discussion, and then we’ll make the food here,” Johnson said. “Then around 10 or so, we load up everything onto the truck, get the truck prepped, and then we drive out.”
Although Johnson and Maple usually prepare meals beforehand, the truck is fully outfitted to prepare meals on-site.
“A lot of food trucks are designed around one very specific menu,” Rice said. “So they’re outfitted accordingly. This truck was designed and equipped so that it can do just about everything.”
The team plans on using the Spinning Plate in tandem with a supporting truck — the original food truck — to assist in disaster relief during the hurricane season.
“Should a storm hit in this region, we can respond, take the trucks out, set them up and feed the first-responders and volunteers and people who’ve been impacted by the storms,” Rice said. “We can give them hot meals.”
The Spinning Plate is helping Inter-Faith meet the demands of a hungry community by allowing the team to meet them where they are most needed.
“My favorite thing about cooking is actually watching people eat the food,” Johnson said. “Like, I know that sounds creepy, but someone being shocked that food just tastes good. You can tell that they’re enjoying it, and that brings me joy.”