Food Trucks Move Beyond Hipster Fad to Help the Hungry

Neighborhoods with few options for healthy food welcome tasty new choices.

Meals on Wheels: Food trucks like Boston's Mei Mei Street Kitchen have begun offering high-quality food to a wide range of consumers. (Photo: Courtesy of Meimeiboston.com)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

It appears the food revolution is going mobile. Increasingly, vendors, nonprofits and cities are literally taking to the streets on four wheels to address food inequality and malnutrition.

Take food trucks, for example. Food trucks, the hippest food trend so far this decade, are popping up—er, rolling in—everywhere, it seems, and are a favorite for quick-gourmet-food-loving hipsters, yuppies, and the lunchtime crowd.

But what about food trucks as a mode of fighting food inequality in low-income neighborhoods? Mei Mei Street Kitchen a new food truck in Boston, carries the same gourmet fare (“Modern Chinese-American”) as the other trucks—except this venture has a mission.

The Mei Mei truck, with its char siu barbecued pork belly and local wheatberry salad, can often be found at a farmers market sponsored by the Bowdoin Street Health Center, which sits in one of Boston’s rougher neighborhoods. It’s also a neighborhood where diabetes and diet-related illness is sky-high, with few options for healthy food.

Mei Mei also serves ingredients grown by the youth at The Food Project, an organization that “engages youth in social change through sustainable agriculture.” Mei Mei recently hocked its deliciousness at The Food Project’s City Farm Fest, where families received compost and seedlings, then donated the proceeds back to The Food Project.

“We’d love to set up our truck more often in places in Boston that lack fresh, healthy food options,” says Mei Li, one of three siblings who started Mei Mei last fall. “We’ve tossed around the idea of a food truck-grocery that could bring more fresh produce to food deserts in the city. There are tons of exciting possibilities we’d like to pursue.”

A different kind of truck with a slightly different mission is feeding kids this summer in New Haven, Connecticut. For hundreds of kids who receive free or reduced meals in schools and after-school programs during the school year, the summer can bring a drop-off in the quantity and quality of their food. And while the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program exists to fill that gap, many kids don’t know about it, are afraid of the stigma attached to free meals, or simply don’t have the resources to get to pickup locations.

The city began sending the big, yellow vehicle resembling an ice cream truck into areas of town where lots of kids receiving free or reduced meals live. You could say it was a success; in a month-long pilot program last summer, the city distributed around 17,000 meals in just 20 days.

“It’s kind of the cool thing to do, to go to the food truck,” Tim Cipriano, executive director for New Haven Food Services, told NPR.

In Chicago, the aptly named Fresh Moves bus ventures into underserved neighborhoods on the West Side, where many residents lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The seats on the bus have been replaced with shelves of fresh produce like pineapples, collards, mangoes and onions. Too often, low-income neighborhoods are without a decent supermarket, its residents instead relying on fast food and the limited selection of corner stores for nourishment.

And it’s catching on. A Fresh Moves cofounder told The Atlantic Cities last fall that the bus stops for at least an hour at more than 15 locations.

“We’ve proven there’s demand in the community for high-quality affordable produce,” says cofounder Sheelah Muhammad, who has started work on an expansion plan. “We definitely want to add more vehicles and expand our coverage areas.”

Can we expect trucks and buses to continue to be an engine behind food justice efforts nationwide? Probably, says Dr. Alfonso Morales, who has studied street food, markets and food justice.

“It seems to me mobile vendors are part of an overall economic development strategy, a way to ‘speciate’ the business environment and populate the ecology of the food system,” says Morales, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin. 

But simply trucking food to people won’t necessarily spur on sustainable lifestyle changes, and food justice has both “supply and demand components,” he says.

“Educating people to make healthier choices is as important as working with various parties to supply those choices.”

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