Food trucks aren’t just a feature of college dining and trendy downtown areas: they’re also finding their way into K-12 foodservices. Orange County (FL) Public Schools’ Food & Nutrition Services provides carts stocked with food for student volunteers from various school-based organizations to sell during breakfast and lunch periods within their outdoor school courtyards. The result is a win-win-win situation in which profits generated for the students’ organizations have been in excess of $1 million since 2005; meal participation rates have increased; and student volunteers have gained entrepreneurial skills (in addition to learning the practical basics of food sanitation).
OCPS FNS serves more than 26 million meals and snacks for the nation’s 10th largest school district and Lora Gilbert, MS, RD, FADA, senior director of the department, is very pleased with the role the Cooperative Cart Program has come to play within many of the high schools and middle schools in the district. District manager Edwin Torres Santiago has overseen the program since 2004.
About 18 high schools have Cooperative Carts plus Reimbursable Carts; some schools have as many as five carts. Of the 35 middle schools, about 15 have carts with two or three operating during breakfast. Carts boast a heater and cooler to maintain ideal food temperature; those that offer reimbursable meals must have five components and are staffed by food service employees. In inclement weather, carts can shelter under courtyard overhangs.
Santiago points out that the program allows student organizations to sell safe, healthy foods at a profit for their organization. “A portable food cart is rolled out to the courtyard by students,” he says. “While the student organizations sell the food items, students are learning to handle money, take inventory, fill out reports, work with customers and work as a team. They’re also helping us to feed more students during lunch by running our food carts in the courtyard.”
Gilbert explains that the student entrepreneurs make money by adding a quarter to the price of each item they sell to their friends in the courtyard. “So, we’re not spending money or staff—we’re just taking inventory and stocking—and we agree to take care of disposing of leftovers so they don’t have to pay for them.
“We know our business well and there are rarely leftovers.” Gilbert adds.
Cannibalizing cafeteria sales is not a concern, since students who typically frequent the Cooperative Carts were not eating in the cafeteria in the first place. Therefore, the program actually has helped increase participation numbers.
Have a cart
The department assigns a location and the student organization has to agree to run the Cooperative Cart for a minimum of a month (sometimes sharing the commitment with another organization). “They can reserve it a week ahead with up to five items,” Gilbert says.
“We do food safety training with them, plus they must have an adult with them at all times. If we have a cart that’s not ‘reserved’ for that month, we’ll take it out ourselves. One journalism teacher—along with parent volunteers—runs two carts to pay the costs of that program.”
The best “promotion” has been word of mouth from students in organizations that work the program. As Santiago notes happily: “It’s a very simple concept: ‘Go to them and they will eat!’”
Since OCPS is no stranger to operating in the aftermath of hurricanes, its two mobile kitchens (a.k.a., food trucks) have seen much extended service over the years. Now, one of them has been colorfully wrapped and will begin a trial run (at presstime), visiting each of the district’s high schools on a daily rotation offering a yet-to-be-determined menu.
“Perhaps it will be Korean BBQ and other items our students indicate they want,” Gilbert says. “In the past, our mobile kitchen has been sent out to special events, such as picnics, where the principal can grill; we know this new food truck concept will be very popular.”