Julius Searight: On the road and feeding the hungry
When he was eight years old, Julius Searight’s foster mother sat him down over a plate of cookies and a glass of apple juice and asked him, “Would you like me to be your mother?” He had been living with her since he was three, but it was at that moment that they decided to move forward with an official adoption.
In telling the story, Searight begins with the cookies and apple juice. Food and security go hand in hand in his world. His childhood is grounded in memories of huge Sunday dinners at his grandmother’s house where the family gathered after church for the scrumptious gumbo and jumbalaya she served out of her Louisiana heritage.
“I remember her cooking,” he says. “That’s really where I thought I wanted to do something like this when I grow up, maybe have a restaurant or catering business.”
From that moment, Searight worked at odd jobs in kitchens, gaining experience. In 2013, he graduated from Johnson and Wales University with a degree in culinary and food service management, and then spent two years with Americorps, working with the needy. The whole time, he strategized about how he might use his cooking talents to give back to his community of Providence, Rhode Island.
This summer, after almost three years of planning, he opened up Food4Good, a commercially viable food truck that doubles as a mobile soup kitchen. It goes directly to places where people are hungry. “I saw the need for bringing food to the people rather than having them come to a normal soup kitchen,” Searight says.
With his food truck and philanthropy, Searight is realizing his dream of giving back to the working poor. “They work every day,” he says, “but things in America get so expensive that you have to sacrifice, and just what is that family sacrificing? It could be food. You never really know that somebody is struggling with hunger. In America, we don’t really talk about it.”
Searight’s work at food pantries and shelters made him realize that many people are silent about their hunger. Part of that silence has to do with pride, he says. But it also has to do with hard economic choices made by people who sometimes put off eating until tomorrow the way others might put off paying the electric bill. Children, especially, often tolerate hunger tonight because they know they will eat at school the next day.
Grants, community partners, and ongoing donations have helped Food4Good get on the road. But the core of the non-profit’s strategy for sustainability is to “change the way an average person purchases food,” according to Searight. The goal is to combine the trendy culinary attraction of the food truck with an appeal to the goodwill of the people of Providence: for every meal they purchase, he can cover the cost of two meals for someone in need.
“People who are willing to give might not because they don’t have the funds or maybe it’s going to be a burden on them,” he says. But those who buy meals at Searight’s food truck know that, while they feed themselves, they are helping someone else to eat.
To the general public, Food4Good sells what Searight calls “comfort meals”—chicken sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, chicken wings, fries, and milkshakes. “We want our food to really spark a memory.” In addition to selling meals to those who are able to buy them, Searight plans to give away 100 meals a day to the needy, on a first-come, first-serve basis. For those meals, he serves “more nutritious” fare such as soups, sandwiches, and salads.
While Searight loves being a chef, he has also decided that “being a businessman is phenomenal.” He says: “Sometimes you wear more hats than one. One hour I’m a chef, the next hour I’m a director of a non-profit, and the next hour I’m a contractor trying to get the truck finished.”He has discovered that ventures like Food4Good don’t happen overnight, and they certainly don’t happen without a little help. “Being an entrepreneur and starting a project like this is very hard to do alone,” he says. ““Without the support of the community, we couldn’t do it.”