SALISBURY — Pastor Michael King estimates one in four black men in Rowan County is unemployed. In an effort to employ them, King’s church recently purchased several old buses, gutted them, and began transforming them into food trucks.
King’s church — Damascus Ministries — runs boarding houses for the working poor in Salisbury and East Spencer, where he says unemployment among black men is between 25 and 35 percent.
“Most of the men I know are out of work,” he said. “I’m talking about guys with college degrees … they can’t find a job.”
The church planned to give the poor and the homeless men shelter, food, and clothing in exchange for their work as cooks on the trucks. The church pitched in to send one of its members to culinary school; she would share her newly acquired skills and recipes with the men the church would hire.
After spending thousands of dollars getting its first truck — the Mac-Attack Wagon, specializing in fried chicken — ready to roll, the church discovered it would take more than donations, faith, and hard work to get its food truck ministry going. It would take political influence, influence it apparently does not have.
What stands between dozens of unemployed men and the potential road to economic independence? A state regulation requiring food truck owners either to buy a restaurant or rent space in someone else’s commercial kitchen.
It’s called a commissary agreement. It’s a rule established by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources two decades ago requiring pushcarts and mobile food units to “operate in conjunction with a permitted restaurant or commissary” and to “report at least daily to the restaurant or commissary for supplies, cleaning, and servicing.”
The restaurant or commissary must have a sink, a storage area, and waste disposal facilities available for the food truck operator’s use, even though the trucks must also have two sinks, hot and cold water, and a waste disposal system on board.
The commissary requirement is intended to ensure “that the operator has permanent facilities that are inspected and that they use as their kitchen rather than their garage or the side of the road or a storm drain to dump their waste,” said Mark Myer, food and lodging supervisor of Durham County Health Department, to Carolina Journal.
Myer, whose job is to enforce the state law at the county level, said county health departments have been asking the state to revisit the rule for years.
“We’ve been talking about it for a decade and every county has been screaming at the state — ‘fix this’ — but it hasn’t happened yet,” Myer said. “Now with all the pressure in the economy — and the food business is always ahead of the curve when it comes to regulations and innovation — the state just hasn’t been able to keep up.”
King believes the reason state lawmakers haven’t looked into changing the rule is because restaurant owners have asked them not to. After he found out about the rule, he called the restaurant association in Charlotte for help. He didn’t find any sympathy.
“I complained to the communication director that the rule is ridiculous, because it has nothing to do with sanitation,” King said. “It’s just there to protect the brick and mortar restaurants from competition. He admitted that it was. He said ‘Look sir, we are a lobbying organization. The people we represent are the restaurants.’”
So he contacted Lawrence McNeill Dowdy, the faith-based outreach coordinator for Gov. Bev Perdue, who put him in touch with two men in the governor’s satellite office in Charlotte.
King also attended a town hall meeting with Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, where he again asked for help. Tillis’ office told King someone from Rep. Patricia McElraft’s office would be in touch with him. McElraft, a Republican from Carteret County, is co-chair of the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee, which was formed this year to “create a strong environment for private sector job creation by lifting the undue burden imposed by outdated, unnecessary, and vague rules.”
King hasn’t heard from the governor’s office or McElraft’s office. David Belton of Perdue’s Piedmont Regional office confirmed to Carolina Journal that he and Bud Berro, director of the Piedmont Regional office, had met with King. But Belton declined to answer any further questions about the pastor’s concerns, saying Berro was in charge of Rowan County. Berro was not available for comment late Monday.
McElraft said she is in the process of contacting DENR “to see if anything can be done” about the regulation and plans to call King as soon as she gets an answer.
“Apparently the guys from the governor’s office have gotten cold feet, because they were gung ho about it,” King said. They were working on it, but it’s like they dropped the ball.”
If lawmakers are unwilling to get rid of the commissary rule, King suggests they at least allow him to use one of several abandoned school buildings in the area as a commissary.
“But it’s obvious there is not a will in government to help the folks that don’t have jobs to create their own jobs,” he said. “They talk about wanting to create jobs. But it appears the folks they’re concerned about are only those who can go to the bank and borrow a bunch of money and put money in the ground.
“We don’t want them to be on government assistance,” he continued. “But the government is putting these rules in place and forcing the people to go on government assistance. How are you going to bring down government spending if you are putting rules in place so even if people want to create a job for themselves, they can’t?”
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.