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Meals on Wheels

College shuts cafeteria, turns to food trucks for campus meal service.

Napa Valley (CA) College, like many institutions of higher learning, especially in cash-strapped California, was looking for budget savings this past summer. One prominent target: the campus dining program, which was costing the school $20-$30,000 in subsidies, utilities and operational expenses.

NVC is a purely commuter school that only offers onsite foodservice as an amenity for a customer base that doesn't for the most part eat on campus. It had been outsourcing management of its cafeteria to a series of contract operators but because of a subsidization clause and the school's responsibility for maintenance of facilities and equipment, it was a money-losing proposition, says John Nahlen, vice president of business & finance.

“We were looking for budget savings and noticed the surge in publicity food trucks were getting, especially here in California, so we thought, ‘Why not?’” he says.

The school purchased the license list of food truck operators in the area and sent out letters inviting all of them to a meeting where a proposal to operate on campus was outlined. Nahlen says about 20 truck operators came and 15 signed up.

The program was launched at the beginning of the current school year. The participating trucks are rotated through campus with six onsite each day from 11 am to 2 pm. The rotation allows the campus to have day-to-day variety.

Three trucks set up near the cafeteria, where the seating area remains open, while three others are at the other end of the campus. Nahlen says the arrangement may change because some of the truck operators say they prefer to congregate together to provide more of a “food court” setting that offers wider variety in one place.

The trucks each pay the school $50 a day to operate on campus, which helps defray costs like trash removal, which Napa Valley provides.

And the reaction? “So far I've heard nothing but positive comments,” Nahlen says. The trucks are the only foodservice on campus except for a small café in the library that offers beverages and some grab and go snacks and sandwiches.

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