Last month, Lumberton held it’s first food truck festival in downtown Lumberton. By many standards, it was a highly successful event, but I think one of its best contributions to Robeson County was overlooked.

Thousands of people attended the April 25 event, despite being rescheduled from the previous day because of a chance of rain. It was very well attended and fairly well managed. However, the most important thing offered is the one I least hear talked about — diversity.

In a county that boasts the rich diversity that Robeson does, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that bringing more diversity could make a big difference. However, when it comes to food, diversity is one that we don’t embrace enough.

One of the things that made me smile when I first read about the event was that among the 11 food trucks scheduled for the event, none would carry collard sandwiches, collard wraps, funnel cakes or hot dogs. Nothing against them, but you can get that most any time around here.

When I say we don’t always welcome diversity in Robeson County, what I mean is we as a community can sometimes be insular and set in our ways, a little weary of things we don’t know much about, and suspicious of all things “different.” It takes us some time, but when we come around, we do it big-time. Mexican restaurants do very well here, but I’m certain at first it took time to warm up to it. I’m sure the same might have been said for the first Chinese restaurants to surface in Robeson.

I was certain the organizers would catch some heat for not including popular RobCo staples, but I didn’t hear the first complaint. Instead, folks were delighted by samples of Jamaican, Venezuelan, Indian food, gourmet burgers and ice cream. There was a Southern food truck there, but I’ll venture to guess it had something different. I can’t say for sure because I didn’t visit it and had no plans to. I was there for something different, and I discovered most others were too.

Asian Indian food is my favorite, so I was ready as soon as the announcement came out about the festival. I wondered who in Robeson County would share my affinity for spicy food. To my bewilderment, the line for Indian food stretched and remained long all day. I usually don’t like to wait in long lines, but this time I felt obliged.

Food brings people together, and it did at the Lumberton Food Truck Festival. Reports suggest that as many as 4,000 people attended the event during its six-hour run. At least a couple of food trucks shut down from volume and demand. Others had dwindling offerings by the end of the day, a tasty testament of the demand.

Food equals comfort, so it’s not unheard of for people to be a little suspect about food that is outside their normal comfort zone. I’ve always hated hearing about people visiting foreign countries only to seek out western fast-food options. That is part of the adventure, trying something new. That was a goal of this food truck festival, to introduce Robeson County to something new. That is what makes food so charming and appealing, it offers a window into diversity. And that is important in a county where some residents have never ventured elsewhere.

Diversity education is important in our global society more than ever, and what better way to introduce cultural diversity than by way of the taste buds. We all know someone who’s said “I’d never eat that…that doesn’t sound good to me…” That usually changes when they’ve been given the chance to try something truly unique. Food opens the doors of curiosity and understanding of other cultures.

Diversity gives us alternatives. I won’t say food trucks offer the healthiest fare but healthier options can be introduced through diversity, so maybe in the future that option will attract even more people.

And speaking of cultures, music goes well with food, and the diversity of local musicians spoke volumes about Robeson’s ever-growing embrace of culture. There was country, R&B, rock and soul. Coincidentally, two of the performers have been featured on American Idol, arguably the most famous music reality show in the world. And the Robeson County Arts Council’s “Arts on Elm” event was a nice complement to the food truck festival.

I say this a lot, but we need more events just like this in Robeson County, and not just once a year. I understand that planning takes time, but it seems we could ramp up the consistency, as we are now beginning to see a lot more synergy in downtown. Also, if the success of any of the attending food trucks is any indication, there are plenty of empty parking spaces in downtown Lumberton that could be occupied by one of the food vendors, and almost certainly a return on investment.

Even if one of its most valuable benefits was overshadowed, the food truck festival was a small stroke of genius. Can we please have another serving soon?

James Bass is the executive director of the Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He can be reached at [email protected]