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Serving up gratitude: Truck drivers receive free food-truck lunch on I-95

North Stonington — Truck drivers were treated to free lunches Wednesday afternoon at the Interstate 95 south rest stop, as a thank you for their tireless efforts to supply health care workers with protective equipment and keep store shelves stocked with food, toilet paper and other essential products during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lunches, made by the Rustic StrEats food truck, were provided by Whelen Engineering Inc. in partnership with the Connecticut Motor Transport Association and state Department of Transportation.

Whelen Engineering donated $500 to buy the lunches and handed out 50 reusable masks to truckers who stopped by for a bite to eat. The company started manufacturing reusable rubber masks at the start of the pandemic, donating more than 200,000 to front-line and essential workers so far.

Rick Alexander, commercial fleet manager at Chester-based Whelen, said the company decided to donate money for the lunches and hand out masks to truckers as a way to show their appreciation for the work truckers are doing to keep Americans fed and safe.

“We’re proud to be able to help the truckers. It’s hard for them to be able to find a spot to park and eat safely,” he said.

Rustic StrEats, owned by Ben Dow of Norwich, cooked up dozens of meals Wednesday, including beef sliders, buttermilk chicken tenders, steak skewers and Italian sandwiches.

Frank Rollo from Brooklyn, N.Y., stopped by for lunch on his way back to New Jersey from Somerset, Mass., where he dropped off a load of greenhouse plants for the company he drives for, Lucas Greenhouses.

Rollo has been on the road for eight weeks straight, delivering vegetables and plants to farmers and garden centers. Since he shares a home with his elderly parents, he hasn’t returned home since the pandemic hit. He has been sleeping in the sleeper cab of his truck and in hotels, he said.

“It’s not good to go home if we’re carrying COVID-19 that we don’t know about, it’s not good for them,” Rollo said. 

The truck driver was heading back to New Jersey and then getting back on the road to drive to New York City or Long Island. He said that staying out on the road was tough and that he missed seeing his son, who also lives in Brooklyn and whom he has only seen over FaceTime, but he knows that the work he’s doing is important.

“Everybody needs to get their stuff, and without us, they’re not getting it, that’s what it comes down to,” he said.

Richard Yost, a truck driver for KC Transportation, was hauling scrap on his way back to Pennsylvania after making a delivery in Stoughton, Mass. He stopped at the rest area for his usual half-hour break and was surprised to find the food truck, and was even more surprised that it was free.

“I didn’t expect this; I was willing to pay for it, I carry my own weight,” said Yost, who said the gesture made him feel really appreciated.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had this done in my lifetime. You don’t get too many people thanking truckers for what they’re doing,” said Yost, who said he will continue driving to make sure everyone has what they need during this difficult time.

“It’s our job. We’ve got to continue to keep Americans strong, and that’s what we’ve got to do,” he said.

Steve McCall, who was driving back to New Haven after a delivery in Providence, said it was a great surprise to get free sliders — easy to eat on the road, he said — when he’s been working nine- to 10-hour days delivering hot dogs, hamburgers, cold cuts and meat products to grocery stores, delis and restaurants.

“It’s awesome, a very good surprise and very much appreciated,” McCall said.

Joe Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, a statewide trade association that represents commercial vehicles traveling state roads, said the association was proud to partner with Whelen for the event.

“Truck drivers have been working throughout this to move product to refill groceries store shelves or get equipment to hospitals or pharmacies," he said. "They’re serving a critical purpose right now and at the same time, they’ve been struggling to find meal options” on the road, since many restaurants and stores are closed due to the pandemic.

Sculley and Alexander agreed that they hosted the event to also support food truck owners, many of whom are struggling due to a loss of business.

Dow, owner of Rustic StrEats, said his livelihood has been hit hard during the pandemic since he and his staff normally rely on events for a lot of their business, but many have been canceled.

Luckily, Dow was able to get permission from DOT to park on the highway, where food trucks normally are prohibited, and participate in the trucker event.

“It’s a two-way thing, it’s helping out truckers and it’s good for us,” Dow said.

His mother, who helps out on the truck, said the donations hit home for her because her dad was a trucker. The truck normally operates around southeastern Connecticut and is now parked at the rest stop on I-95 on Mondays and Fridays.

Paul Rizzo, bureau chief of the Bureau of Highway Operations, said that typically, the Federal Highway Administration does not allow food service at the seven rest areas in the state, which are different from service areas. The rest areas normally have only vending machines.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, a program was put together to allow permits for food trucks so that they can provide food for essential travelers and truckers, Rizzo said.

“The program helps both the truckers and, of course, food trucks, most of which weren’t working at the time,” he said. “This provides another place for them (truck drivers) to find food while they’re on the road.”

t.hartz@theday.com

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