Snack Trucks Thwart Nutrition Goals

Students from Novato High School leave campus to get junk food from trucks parked near the school. Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal


Students from Novato High School leave campus to get junk food from trucks parked near the school. Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal

NOVATO, Calif.—After the Novato school district banned junk food in its K-12 schools in 2007, Rana Sanghi saw an opportunity. He altered his ice cream truck route to include Novato High School, parking the vehicle just outside the entrance.

Initially, school officials in the Marin County district say they were reluctant to object, but their sentiments changed earlier this year when more trucks began to arrive. These days, as many as five can be found parked near the school’s entrance, attracting more than 300 kids during lunch hours.

“I’m just trying to make a buck here,” said the 47-year-old Mr. Sanghi, who has three children of his own though none at Novato High. But, he added, “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a problem” in how the trucks help students skirt the junk food crackdown.

The school's principal, Rey Mayoral, and other school officials have argued for limits on the trucks, but the city says enforcing curbs would be too costly. Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal

The school’s principal, Rey Mayoral, said fights have broken out between drivers over choice parking locations, forcing him to call the police on more than one occasion. And the scores of students flocking to the trucks sometimes snarl traffic, he said.

“These trucks are contradicting everything we are trying to teach the kids” about nutrition, said Mr. Mayoral. “And what makes matters worse is it’s getting dangerous.”

Vending trucks have been a nuisance at some other Bay Area school districts trying to instill better eating habits. In 2007, San Francisco issued an ordinance that limits how close a vending truck can park near schools. The Oakland and Santa Cruz districts followed with similar ordinances in 2009.

In Novato, school leaders, many parents and even some students are in favor of the restrictions. But some students say the trucks are a convenient alternative to the crowded school cafeteria.

Novato banned junk food inside the schools, yet most students leave campus to fill up on junk food for lunch. Annie Tritt for The Wall Street Journal

Lucas Ternell,17, a senior at Novato High School, says some of his friends buy snacks from the trucks, though he says he doesn’t. “They’re kids so they aren’t thinking about the consequence of their actions,” he says. “They want quick, cheap and what tastes good.”

City officials have been hesitant to enact limits on the trucks, saying they would be costly to enforce at a time of deep financial strain. At a city council meeting earlier this month, after an hourlong presentation from school leaders, the council decided against passing an ordinance.

Mike Frank, Novato city manager, says the city will explore ways to rid the trucks from around the schools, but cautioned that he is reluctant to dedicate police officers to the issue.

“We’ll find a creative solution to deal with the problem, but we cannot afford to have police officers sitting around schools,” says Mr. Frank.

Novato does have in place an ordinance that places a 10-minute limit on parking and vending, but it is enforced only through complaints. To operate in the city, vendors must have a business license, a police permit and a health permit, which can total about $1,000.

Nutrition advocates say the disconnect in Novato highlights how the growing effort to improve nutrition in schools must extend to the community to have a lasting effect.

“Without a buy-in from the neighborhood and home it’s difficult for the healthy eating policies to take effect,” said Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director of the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ms. Woodward-Lopez said nutrition efforts in schools in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood and South Los Angeles included local corner stores and convenience shops altering their choice of items to coincide with menu changes in neighboring schools. Some school districts in Orange County have been able to persuade some vending trucks to sell healthy items, in addition to making changes in the school menu.

California has been at the forefront of overhauling school cafeteria menus and vending options. In 2003, the state was the first to ban soda sales in elementary and middle schools. By 2009, state law required vending-machine snacks and cafeteria meals sold during school hours to have fewer calories and less fat. In the Bay Area, schools in Oakland and Berkeley have far-reaching policies governing nutrition, including partnerships with local farms to provide fresh produce and other items for meals.

The policy at Novato Unified School District, which includes 15 schools, restricts the sale of food with high fat content such as potato chips and pizza, as well as certain meats and chocolate milk.

Pam Conklin, Novato’s schools superintendent, said the district began to first encounter the vending trucks in 2009. Last year, she said, their numbers began to increase and parents began to complain about the unhealthy items.

The school district attempted to institute a closed campus policy for its three high schools, prohibiting students from leaving during breaks and lunch hour, but parents and some administrators were against the measure and voted it down. As a compromise, freshman students at Novato high schools remain on campus during breaks.

“We’re in an awkward situation,” said Ms. Conklin.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into improving kids’ health,” she added, “but the trucks allow kids to ignore all of it.”