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What We Learned from Offering Meals to 220 Truck Drivers during the Coronavirus Pandemic

When I arrived at the rest stop on northbound I-69 in Auburn, IN, the wind was cold and tiny droplets were dotting the asphalt. I saw the food truck we’d secured for the day was set up and ready, and my coworkers were standing by in a pavilion stocked with soda, chips, water, apples, bananas, and hand sanitizer. The only problem was it was almost ten o’clock, when the event was supposed to begin, and there were no truckers in sight.

I unloaded the coffee carafes from the back of my car and hauled them to the pavilion. It promised to be a chilly wet day. Would that mean fewer people showing up or more? I was worried because I’d had to estimate the number of meals we would need so the food truck would be properly stocked. I was also worried because we’d only gotten the permit Monday morning, just two days earlier, so we didn’t have nearly as long as we would’ve liked to get the word out.

So, finally the day was here for the “Tacos for Truckers” event we’d been planning for weeks. Flora and Lily’s Mexican Kitchen had been one of a couple of food trucks I could get to come out while the state was still on lockdown. We’d also gotten a few boxes full of small hand sanitizer bottles from 3 Rivers Distillery to give to the truckers who passed through for their meals. Our job now was simply to hand out extra snacks, drinks, and the little bottles, so no one would have to touch the stuff themselves.

But the first people to show up were from the news. We greeted them as they set up their cameras with plastic covers. At first it was two journalists, but about the time we got our first trucker going up to the food truck, a third newsperson arrived.

Okay, I thought, so the event is already a marketing win, but what about the actual purpose of the day? What about showing our appreciation to truck drivers, who were still getting up and going to work while the rest of us mostly stayed home, who were working extra hours and risking infection so we could continue to have groceries on the shelves at stores and so doctors and nurses could have the supplies they needed?

Fortunately, around 11:00, a steady stream of drivers began wandering over from the lot behind the rest area to get their free meals. They went to the food truck to order their meals, and then they came over to the pavilion where we stood ready, with masks and rubber gloves, to hand out the other goodies. My coworkers and I were delighted that all our planning seemed to be paying off.

Convoy Technologies sells cameras, monitors, DVRs, and accessories to trucking companies. That’s why we felt it incumbent on us to give something back to the drivers. But I don’t get many chances to interact with the drivers who make it possible for me to earn my livelihood. As the hours passed, though, I got to talk to plenty of them.

I was impressed with the diversity. While the way they dressed was invariably relaxed and informal—often downright grungy—the men and women themselves could hardly have been more different. From MAGA and cowboy hats to bald heads and bandanas, from bare-faced conspiracy theorists to masked worriers, it seemed all types were represented. And I was enjoying talking to them all.

There was one thing all the drivers seemed to have in common though. They all seemed shocked and incredulous. “Man, most people aren’t feeling appreciative,” a tall African American guy said, his smile visible beneath his mask. “Most people treat us like they’re mad we’re even there. They look at you like you’re trying to get them sick—when we’re just trying to do our job.”

I’d been reading lots of stories about rest stops closing down, fast food restaurants that either forced drivers to walk up to the drive-through window or didn’t let them order at all, and businesses of all sorts closing their doors. Many drivers are having trouble even finding a place to go to the bathroom. It was these stories that inspired us to hire the food truck in the first place.

But what I hadn’t realized was how drivers are also having to deal with people’s attitudes toward them as they travel across the country. On the one hand, it’s only natural. People coming into town from distant regions during a pandemic could be carrying the contagion with them. On the other, what sense does it make to turn our backs on people risking their own health to make sure our shelves are stocked?

What the drivers’ informal attire and surprise at being recognized suggested to me was that truckers are for the most part an invisible class we like to take for granted. We get frustrated when we get stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler on the way to work, but we love the convenience of having everything we need within reach—often delivered right to our doors. There’s just no glamor to this job that we’re all learning is so essential. And we’re all too ready to turn on truck drivers in a way we would never turn on, say, doctors and nurses.

At the end of the day, the food truck operators told me they’d handed out 220 meals. That struck me as a huge success—but I couldn’t help wondering where all these drivers would eat tomorrow, and the next day. For that matter, what about all the other drivers across the country who are taking care of us while we do nothing for them?

Maybe Convoy will be able to host another event like Tacos for Truckers. But, in the meantime, I figured the least I could do was get the word out. The other thing I learned about truckers is that they seem to love their jobs. As diverse as they appeared, there does seem to be a personality type that finds the road appealing. It’s a good thing, I think, because most of us wouldn’t want to do what they do, spend all those hours alone, away from home. And, as much as we depend on them, we should all really do our best to show our gratitude to them for being there for us.

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