By Hannah Sampson | Miami Herald
Specialty food trucks have become a staple at community gatherings, art walks, football games and other big events — and, in Miami-Dade, public school campuses.
Adapting the national trend for its own use, Miami-Dade County Public Schools first rolled out a food truck last summer as a way to deliver healthy meals to students for free at no cost to the district, thanks to partnerships with sponsors.
While food trucks have grown in popularity nationwide over the last five years, relatively few school districts have tapped into the trend. New Haven Public Schools, in partnership with the local United Way, started using a food truck for a summer food program in 2011. Fayette County Schools in Indiana followed suit the next year, the same year Miami-Dade started its program. A Broward school district spokeswoman said the school district does not use food trucks.
Penny Parham, administrative director for the district’s department of food and nutrition, said staffers had been aware of other school systems using trucks to distribute cold food, but Miami-Dade wanted to do more.
“We wanted fresh, we wanted to incorporate our farm-to-school connections, we wanted it to have hot fresh vegetables and salads,” she said.
District officials liked the response to the first meals on wheels outing so much that they brought it back during the school year, from February through June 2013, when the truck outfitted with a district staffer and a contractor served up breakfast for free and lunch for standard school cafeteria prices. Lunch offerings included teriyaki chicken and vegetables with brown rice or a burger on a whole wheat bun, all served with a side salad, fresh fruit and low-fat milk. For breakfast, there were eggs, turkey bacon, whole grain biscuits and fruit.
“The truck was really awesome,” Parham said. “It’s made fresh, it’s a hot mobile food truck just like you would buy from Ms Cheezious.”
As of early this summer, Parham said the department was writing a bid to bring a truck back in the fall, likely in October.
The truck is more complicated to organize during the school year because the district must accept payment for lunch or account for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. Schedules must be organized with principals, appropriate parking spots have to be identified and even details such as where to put the garbage need to be ironed out, Parham said.
Principals, parents and students say the hard work is worthwhile.
“It was a hit each time,” said Sally Alayon, former principal of Tracy and Alonzo Mourning High. Now an administrative director at the North Regional office, Alayon said the truck visited her North Miami campus three or four times.
Alayon said the food wasn’t such a departure from what students might be able to buy in the cafeteria, but the delivery method made it unique.
“You’d think you’re at a festival or something,” she said.
Not to miss out on the excitement, Alayon said she sampled the chicken tacos, which she called “very good.” And she wasn’t alone in her admiration.
“The kids actually complimented the food,” she said.
At Ponce de Leon Middle School in Coral Gables, principal Martha Chang said she welcomed the opportunity to give kids an extra reason to grab breakfast at school. All kids in the Miami-Dade public school system can eat breakfast at no charge, but the trick is getting them to take advantage of the free meal.
“I loved it,” Chang said of the truck, which visited for breakfast three or four times. “I’m always willing to try new things here. We don’t get a huge turnout for breakfast; I wish we did, considering 81 percent of my kids are on free and reduced lunch.”
When the truck first came out to campus, the school sold about 70 extra breakfasts thanks to the mobile outdoor option, Chang said.
“The kids really got a kick out of it,” she said.
Carol Wilson said her 13-year-old son, Cavan, got interested in food trucks after the Parent-Teacher-Student Association put on evening fundraisers using some local mobile eateries. When the school hosted the district’s truck, she said her then-seventh grader was intrigued.
“With his experience, he was excited,” said Wilson, of Coral Gables. “It was nice for us, because he got to go to school even earlier because he was fired up.”
Cavan plays basketball on the school’s court before classes start, so the truck was a good way for him to grab a quick bite on campus without having to wait in line in the cafeteria and sit and eat there.
“The truck really brought him in,” Wilson said.
For his part, Cavan said he will “absolutely” eat at the food truck again if it comes back next school year, when he’s in the eighth grade.
“I think the kids really do like the food trucks,” he said.