Despite Novato Ban, Food Trucks Linger Near Novato High School

Students line up to buy snacks from a food truck on Cambridge Street in... (IJ photo/Alan Dep)

By Will Jason | Marin Independent Journal

Students line up to buy snacks from a food truck on Cambridge Street in... (IJ photo/Alan Dep)

THREE MONTHS AFTER Novato officials banned food trucks near schools, the mobile vendors appear to have found a new home a few blocks from Novato High School.

“The past two weeks, the trucks have been right in front of my house,” Joy Dal Santo, who lives near Novato High School, said last week. “They have blocked my driveway, and I have to go out and yell at them.”

After years of pressure from health advocates — including some students — to keep ice cream and other junk food vendors away from schools, the Novato City Council banned all mobile food vendors from within 1,500 feet of schools in December 2011. The ordinance took effect Feb. 9.

In recent weeks, the vendors have congregated in the neighborhood along Cambridge Street, east of Novato High School, residents and school officials said. The area is only about 800 feet away from the school but that has not deterred vendors, said Rob Celli, assistant principal for Novato High School.

“We get a lot of complaints from neighbors about garbage, litter, students jaywalking,” Celli said.

Officials at San Marin High School, where food trucks once parked daily, said the vendors have disappeared since the ordinance took effect.

Celli said he and other Novato High employees have patrolled the neighborhood, prompting some vendors to move, temporarily.

“Sometimes when they see me coming they start their truck and they leave,” Celli said.

Trucks have played a similar cat-and-mouse game with police, he said.

Officers have issued about a half-dozen citations to vendors who have parked too close to the school or operated without a permit, said Novato police Capt. Jim Berg, who helped write the ordinance.

For much of last week rainy weather appeared to thin out the throngs of students in the neighborhood, but on a recent damp afternoon, several students still lined up to buy ice cream on Cambridge Street.

The next day a police cruiser parked on the street for much of the lunch hour; the only food truck in sight drove by without stopping.

Still, dozens of students walked through the neighborhood in search of candy, soda, chips, ice cream and other treats.

“There’s nothing better to do,” sophomore Ryan Martinez said as he stood on a corner with friends, searching for vendors.

Martinez said he buys potato chips from the trucks because the chips sold on campus are baked, rather than fried, and cost twice as much. If the trucks were pushed back to 1,500 feet he would not be deterred by the longer walk, he said.

“What’s another three minutes?” he said.

Sophomore Jake Foster said the presence of vendors is “inevitable.”

“I wish they had some more healthy stuff but it is what it is, an ice cream truck,” he said. “The stuff at school, I don’t think that it’s that healthy either.”

Outside of Novato, food trucks have also served high school students at times but have not been a high-profile issue in recent years.

Lori Parrish, an assistant superintendent for the Tamalpais Union High School District, said she was not aware of trucks’ presence at Sir Francis Drake, Tamalpais or Redwood high schools.

The city of San Rafael has had a 500-foot ban on food trucks near schools on the books for many years.

Last spring, a taco truck and a “junk food” truck began parking in front of Terra Linda High School — often in a red “no parking” zone, officials said.

“It’s a safety issue,” said Elena Dibble, director of food services for San Rafael schools.

Dibble said she was not aware of the 500-foot law, but administrators have begun discussions and research over how to approach the situation.

In Novato, it is not clear what impact the 1,500-foot buffer will have on the vendors. If they moved beyond the limit they would be the same distance from Novato High as a nearby Shell gas station “food mart,” which is already a destination for some students.

Berg said an “education process” has been underway in the weeks since the ordinance took effect, and he expects vendors will eventually follow the rules.

“We are increasing our patrol in the area until we get an assurance that everyone understands what the rules are,” he said.

Novato Councilwoman Madeline Kellner said she and her colleagues would work with neighbors, city staff and police to address concerns about the ordinance and its enforcement.

“I don’t think there’s one silver bullet for it but I think we’re confident that we can work some things out,” Kellner said.