School Cafeteria’s Fruits & Vegetables Vie With Food Trucks’ Sweet & Salty Treats

Students eat snacks from a vending truck near Novato High School. photo Noah Berger for The Bay Citizen
Students eat snacks from a vending truck near Novato High School. photo Noah Berger for The Bay Citizen

On Tuesday afternoon, Edgar Cardenas, 16, stood on the curb outside Novato High School buying his lunch from a food truck that was peddling ice cream, candy, soft drinks and chips.

For $3.50, Edgar, a sophomore, purchased a bag of Hot Cheetos, a can of Coca-Cola and a package of Airheads Xtremes candy.

In the school cafeteria, the menu included a chicken sandwich with roasted potatoes or a veggie burger with garlic fries for $3.25. While there were chips for sale, they were Baked Lay’s.

None of those options appealed to Edgar, who buys his daily lunch from the snack food trucks that park during lunchtime just down the street from the school.

“They don’t have good food over there,” he said of the school cafeteria. “They have, like, fruits and vegetables.”

On Tuesday, Edgar was one of about 100 Novato High School students flocking to two food trucks to buy the kind of fatty and sugary snacks that by law, public school cafeterias in the state cannot sell.

In recent years, the state has restricted the calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar in à la carte items for sale in the cafeterias. Novato Unified School District has gone beyond the state’s requirements, even abolishing chocolate milk.

Yet, as the school lunch offerings in the cafeteria have become more restrictive, snack food trucks have moved in, sometimes as many as four at a time. And the drivers have been aggressively pursuing the business, even paying the students to save the best parking spots for them, said Rey Mayoral, the principal of Novato High.

An ice cream vendor parked near Novato High School drew students to his offerings on Tuesday. photo Noah Berger for The Bay Citizen

The food trucks have hurt the school cafeterias’ bottom line. Last year, lunch sales in middle and high schools in the district were down by 12 percent.

“All these rules that the state of California has put into place have just gone out the window with these food trucks,” said Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutrition services at Novato Unified School District.

This year, chocolate chip cookies are back on the menu in the school cafeteria, in hopes of luring students back.

Teenagers know that the cafeteria food is better for them, but that does not mean they want to eat it. The food trucks’ bounty is “not really the most healthy choice, but it tastes better,” said Trent Eisenberg, 15, a sophomore who had bought a candy bar and chips from one of the trucks.

About 1,000 residents have signed a letter circulated by parent-teacher associations asking Novato City Council members to “create an ordinance to prevent access of mobile food-vendor trucks within 1,500 feet” of all district schools. San Francisco already has a similar ordinance.

Last May, the City Council directed the city manager’s office to work with the district to study the issue. The city manager will report back to the council with recommendations by year-end.

Students buying food from the trucks on Tuesday were skeptical that moving them farther away would achieve anything.

“It’s not going to do much,” said Nathan Estrada, 15, a sophomore, who had a sandwich from home for lunch, but was buying Hot Cheetos as a snack for later. “We will just walk over there.”