Students exploring the culture of New York City on a food cart tour


A taste of everything New York City has to offer

In a place as massive as New York City, the littlest things tell the biggest stories. Whatever neighborhood you’re in, look through the crowds of people, behind the honking taxis, between the world-renowned restaurants and you’ll find humble food carts proudly serving dishes from every culture of New York (and beyond!) that calls the city home.

From halal chicken and rice to Belgian waffles, there are thousands of food carts parked along the five boroughs. They allow people to affordably and easily experience unique cuisines. But there’s much more to these carts than the food they serve. These fast-paced businesses are owned and operated by a diverse set of New Yorkers and are woven into the street life of the city.

EF Explore America partners with Turnstile Tours to take students on a food cart tour and introduce them to working street vendors, discover new perspectives, and (literally) try something new. For Cindy VandenBosch, Founder & President of Turnstile Tours, the goal is to use food as common ground where people can connect. “It’s a way we can connect with one another in meaningful ways, and discover new things and open people’s eyes—maybe to new cultures that they have not thought of before,” she says.

“Our stated mission is to advance public knowledge about the meaning of place, foster connections between people of diverse backgrounds and abilities, and inspire a culture of community participation.”

Cindy VandenBosch, Founder & President of Turnstile Tours

Recently we tagged along with Charlotte C., a Group Leader from Southern California, and her students as they went on a food cart tour during their class trip. Keep reading to see what her students learned about the cultures of New York City and what one of these mouth-watering tours could look like for your group.

Illustration of students learning about the cultures of New York City by trying street food

Stop #1: Human connection with a side of Banh Mi

Turnstile’s food cart tours aren’t all about exploring new food—although there’s plenty of that. They’re about connecting people to the many cultures of New York City. Along with their food, Cindy says each food cart has its own unique backstory. “Most of the vendors we work with are coming in from the outer boroughs, and are bringing with them their culture, their food, their stories, and their presence,” she says.

Stop number one for Charlotte’s group is a Vietnamese cart. Between bites of Banh Mi, the vendor and students ask each other questions, connecting over shared languages or even previous food service experience, creating a dialogue and building a rapport. Cindy recalls one tour where a student with family from Vietnam and the vendor were able to talk specifically about the experience, relationship, and history with the food. That kind of personal connection is exactly what Turnstile works to create.

NYC skyline and an illustration of exploring cultures of New York through food carts

Stop #2: A slice of entrepreneurship

What does it take to make it in America with a small business? That question comes up as Charlotte’s group heads to their next stop at a pizza cart. As they meet each new vendor and hear what it takes to thrive in the demanding business, the students come up with an array of questions: Where does the cart go at night? How do vendors find their parking spots during the day? How is food prepared? Charlotte can tell that seeing the process firsthand is making an impression on her students. “The fact that the pizza vendor had an actual oven inside their cart, and he had been there I think over 14 years…they found it to be interesting,” she says.

Their curiosity gives way to empathy for the hard work required to operate one of these businesses. “The majority of this community is made up of immigrants from all over the world,” says Cindy. “[This] is a way to really start to understand the challenges, but also the creativity and ingenuity of so many of these immigrants that are sharing their, in many cases, family recipes.”

Exploring the culture of New York City through street food

Stop #3: Embracing adventure with empanadas

Let’s not forget that this is a food cart tour, and the students are here to eat. Which provides its own important lesson. Developing the next generation of adventurous, open-minded eaters means getting young people out of their comfort zone.

For example, empanadas, which are the third and final stop for Charlotte’s group. The warm pastry with either savory or sweet fillings is common in Latin America and Southern Europe. “I knew that some of the kids would be hesitant,” says Charlotte, “But once they each got one, they were willing to try it.” That willingness to try something new is exactly what Cindy hopes for. “Maybe they go on this tour, and they try new food, and that will make them want to seek out new things beyond that,” she says.

Bird's-eye view of an intersection on a cultures of New York City tour

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Addison Dlott

Addison is a producer at EF Educational Tours. She has lived and worked in Malaysia, The Gambia, New York, and Washington D.C. When she shuts off her laptop, you can find her unapologetically petting dogs or meeting with friends over tea and dessert. In her dream world, she’s doing both at the same time.