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Chefs help drive today’s organic food truck phenomenon

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From The Organic Report, Summer 2011
By Jennifer Rose

Over the past decade, organic has made notable inroads into the mainstream marketplace. No longer the exclusive province of small farm stands and independent natural food stores, organic products have found their way onto the shelves of major retailers and into the hands of consumers demanding access to healthy products they can trust.

It may come as no surprise, then, to learn that organic has continued to venture into new territory. Fueled in large part by the energy and enthusiasm of sustainably minded chefs, organic has gone mobile and emerged as a small but increasingly vibrant part of the food truck scene in a number of U.S. cities. At the same time, thanks to food activists, organic has become an important theme in mobile educational programs that aim to educate students of all ages about food production and empower them to make informed food choices.

Organic on the go
Until several years ago, the food truck world was dominated by vendors selling hot dogs, sausages, kebabs, and other low-cow cost – and often low-quality – options. And for a good reason: this is what consumers demanded.

That world has begun to change. Not only has the number of food trucks risen (one estimate suggests that the number of food trucks has grown from 250 to over 1,200 since 2009), but the types of food being served have expanded. As Ross Resnick of food truck website Roaming Hunger notes, “Virtually any kind of food that consumers desire can now be purchased from a food truck.”

Lindsey Mandel and Ryan Cunningham are among the chefs making this change possible. They opened RollinGreens, a Boulder-based food truck, in May 2011 with the goal of “serving people the way they wanted to be served.” As lifelong organic consumers, that meant using organic ingredients to create fresh, flavorful dishes. “Organic is what we know and what we feel most comfortable with, so when we opened our doors [at RollinGreens], we didn’t think twice about having it at the core of our operation.”

RoliRotiHaving studied organic farming and worked as an organic certifier in Europe, Thomas Odermatt, owner of RoliRoti, a mobile gourmet rotisserie in California, agrees. “In order to produce high-end food, I need high-end ingredients. And for me, that means organic.”

Alberto Gonzalez has also worked to make organic part of the street food scene. His venture, Organic Carts NYC, serves exclusively organic food. Like Odermatt, Gonzalez sees organic as integral to producing nutritious, high-quality food. As he puts it, “If you intend to make good food, you need to start with ingredients that are good for people.”

The commitment to serving organic and sustainable ingredients comes at price though, Gonzalez says. These ingredients are more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts, forcing up the price of dishes made with them. Instead of charging $6 or $7 for lunch like other food cart vendors, his prices range between $9 and $12. For many consumers, that is a significant difference. “People who are grabbing food on the street often have a narrow budget in mind. They are looking for something cheap, and there are lots of vendors out there providing that, making it difficult for those of us trying to provide a higher quality product to compete” Gonzalez explains.

Awareness is also an obstacle, according to Odermatt. “Consumers who buy food from food trucks using organic and sustainable ingredients don’t always understand how that food is different from the lower-cost options available elsewhere. Often, they just look at the price and move on.”

Mandel, too, sees awareness as an issue. “When it comes to buying food from a food truck, taste is people’s primary concern. People see organic ingredients are an added bonus, rather than a necessity.”

Nonetheless, Mandel, Odermatt, and Gonzalez remain committed to serving up organic fare and are optimistic about what the future holds for food trucks serving organic food.

“Consumer awareness about the implications of our food choices is growing,” Mandel notes. “As that continues, we are likely to see growing demand for trucks like ours, serving great-tasting food made from organic ingredients.”

Gonzalez has a similar perspective. “People are beginning to ask about where their food comes from and recognize the implications of the current food system.  That bodes well for the future of organic on food trucks and elsewhere.”
Odermatt agrees. “The future of food lies in sustainably farmed ingredients and nothing else. As a result, food trucks are destined to move in that direction.”

Here to stay?

Food trucks are not new. They have been around since the days of chuck wagons, used by pioneers to carry food and cooking equipment across the United States. What is new, says Ross Resnick of Roaming Hunger, is the extent to which food trucks have become a fixture in Americans’ every-day experience.

As he observes, “For a long time, food trucks traveled to specific places like movie studios and office buildings and operated more or less as catering trucks. They weren’t necessarily open to the public. Only recently have food trucks become a cultural phenomenon in the United States that we can all participate in.” Organic Carts NYC 

While there are several reasons for this change, including a desire for convenience, affordability, more diverse cuisine, and the willingness of entrepreneurs to give mobile kitchens a go, Resnick says consumer demand for a greater connection to their food is a key one. “These days, it’s not enough to simply hand consumers a plate of food. They want to know where the food came from and how it was grown.” Additionally, he says, consumers want to know that they can trust the person preparing the food they eat.

Food trucks offer just that, according to Resnick. “Food trucks enable consumers to speak directly to chefs and ask questions about the ingredients and how the food is prepared.” At the same time, an increasing number of food trucks post the names of the farms from which they source their ingredients. In doing so, Resnick says, food trucks offer consumers a unique level of transparency –and the personal connection they are looking for.

The question is—are food trucks here to stay or are they just another passing fad? From Resnick’s standpoint, it is hard to imagine food trucks going away. “Food trucks are becoming a part of daily life that is not likely to disappear anytime soon.”
Statistics support Resnick’s conclusion. According to a study conducted by Technomic, a consulting and research firm focused on food service, 91 percent of consumers polled who are familiar with food trucks say they view food trucks as having staying power. The study also found that consumers exposed to food trucks tend to report “positive impressions of the experience.” At the same time, however, the study found that one in five individuals is not aware of or has not seen a food truck, and a third of individuals who are aware of food trucks have not purchased food from them.

Given such findings, it seems clear that as awareness grows, food trucks are poised to make even greater inroads into the street food scene in the years to come.

Spreading the Organic word

Paralleling the rise of organic food trucks has been the rise of truck-based sustainable educational programs. Driven by a desire to raise awareness and prompt meaningful dialogue about our current, large-scale industrial food system and to encourage people to establish a greater connection to the food they eat, these programs seek to change the way Americans think about—and relate to—food.

Ian Cheney is one such individual. He and his childhood friend Curt Ellis founded “Truck Farm,” a New York City-based, small-scale community supported agricultural (CSA) operation featuring organic produce items. Based out of Cheney and Ellis’ 1986 Dodge pick-up truck, Truck Farm traveled around the city delivering fresh, organic produce to 12 subscribers.

Truck FarmAs Cheney notes, the CSA portion of Truck Farm was geared more toward fun than profit. Truck Farm’s key selling point lay in its use as an educational tool. “People were attracted to the messages Truck Farm delivered about the possibility of growing your own food no matter where you live. It opened their eyes to the fact that any space, even the back of a truck, can be transformed into a source of fresh, healthy food,” he says.

In the years since it first hit the road, Truck Farm has expanded to a fleet of 25 trucks across the United States. Each of the trucks is unique, Cheney says. Some are old, some are new, some are affiliated with other organizations, and some operate independently. But all of the trucks are governed by the same mission:  to empower people of all ages with the information they need to grow their own food, regardless of where they live or how much access to land they have. As Cheney explains it, “Truck Farm injects fun, whimsy and creativity into gardening, and helps people to re-think the way they eat and farm.”

The Compass Green Project has similar goals, says Nick Runkle, one of the project’s team members. The Project, centered around a vegetable-oil powered box truck that has been converted into a mobile greenhouse, aims to raise awareness of both the shortcomings of current agricultural practices and the benefits of alternative, more sustainable methods. At the same time, it seeks to provide people with practical skills, enabling them to “utilize any and all space they can to grow food.” As Runkle notes, “Our hope is to educate people about the current state of agriculture, inspire them to explore other, more sustainable ways to feed themselves, and lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future for all of us.”

Oxford, Mississippi-based Farm on Wheels also seeks to transform the way Americans think about food and food production. Developed by recent graduates of Mississippi School for Math and Science and David Doyle, head of the North Central Mississippi Chapter of the Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi, Farm on Wheels consists of a 1990 school bus converted into solar-paneled greenhouse. Serving as “a mobile teaching lab,” the bus aims to educate students about alternative energy and sustainable living. Additionally, it provides hands-on experience with growing food. In doing so, Doyle says, Farm on Wheels “aims to get kids thinking about ways they can get involved in producing their own fresh, healthy food.”

The response thus far has been “pretty overwhelming,” Doyle says. “People love our purpose and are eager to get involved.”

Runkle agrees. “The response to the Compass Green Project has been outstanding. People want to know how they can lead a more sustainable lifestyle and are eager do their part to make a positive difference.”

Cheney, too, is encouraged by the reception his and other, similar projects have received. “We are thrilled to see momentum growing around this type of work, and are optimistic about what it means for the future of food.”

Finding food trucks in your area
Accompanying the rise of food trucks has been the rise of websites dedicated to tracking food truck activity. Some of these sites are specific to a given region of the United States, while others provide a portal to food trucks around the country. Often, they include interactive maps allowing site visitors to view the current location of food trucks in a given area. Additionally, many of these sites feature Twitter feeds from different food trucks, enabling site visitors to follow many trucks’ activity without visiting the individual trucks’ websites or Twitter feeds.

Here are a few examples of these kinds of websites:
Roaming Hunger (http://roaminghunger.com/)
Find LA Food Trucks (http://www.findlafoodtrucks.com/)
Food Truck Fiesta (http://foodtruckfiesta.com/food-trucks-washington-dc/)
New York Street Food (http://newyorkstreetfood.com/)

Follow that truck!
Social media plays a key role in the success of many of the food trucks and truck farms on the road today. Both types of operations use it to provide updates on their whereabouts and let their followers know about the products and services they offer. Some also use social media as a space to share stories about their travels and solicit ideas for new products. As Ross Resnick of Roaming Hunger notes, “Social media enables real-time broadcasts of all kinds of information, which is key for operations that are constantly on-the-go and looking to stay connected with their customer base.”
Here are a handful of examples of organic and sustainable-oriented food trucks and truck farms that use social media to help keep their followers up to speed:

The Compass Green Project: Twitter handle @thecompassgreen, http://www.facebook.com/compassgreen
Farm on Wheels: http://www.facebook.com/farmonwheels 
Mobile Food Collective: Twitter handle @MFC_Chi,              http://www.facebook.com/mobilefoodcollective
Katchkie Truck: Twitter handle @KatchkieTruck 
RoliRoti, Twitter handle @RoliRoti  
RollinGreens: Twitter handle @RollinGreens1, http://www.facebook.com/RollinGreensCO
Green Truck: Twitter handle @GreenTruck, http://www.facebook.com/greentrucklove