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Lodi Schools’ overcomes challenges of starting food truck

The fun, trend-forward new truck includes plans to keep rolling into the school year when summer ends.

Summer feeding has been part of life at Lodi Unified School District (LUSD) for years. It’s traditionally been done at a handful of sites, including schools and church centers around the different municipalities the district serves. Now, a food truck has pulled up onto the scene, bringing with it excitement and something different for kids, but also a few headaches and tangles of red tape.

It’s important to be realistic about the not-so-fun parts of designing a food truck for school use, says Nancy Rostomily, director of nutrition services at LUSD in San Joaquin County, Calif.

“It’s been about a two-year process,” she says. “We got the funding through a summer food expansion equipment grant.” On top of measuring every piece of equipment (basically everything but a fryer) down to the quarter inch, Rostomily says there was a lot of unexpected paperwork that hampered the process.

“A food truck sounds like a great idea and everyone wants to do it, but you really need to work with your city and the municipalities you want to serve to make sure permitting is not an issue,” Rostomily says. “Some cities won’t let you use your food truck off of school property.”

Vendor permits, easements and more were also part of the not-so-fun part of the food truck process, she adds, advising those considering a food truck to “make sure that you’re in early communication with your health department, the police and city offices…and here’s what really threw us: you need to have a site to dump your gray water, and think about grease separators, too.”

But ultimately, she predicts it’ll be worth it.

“In spite of all this, a food truck draws great attention and excitement,” Rostomily says. “We’ve already noticed that it builds up a sense of trust out in the community. Our staff has a new sense of responsibility [operating the truck] and that’s been a real positive.”

At a soft opening of the food truck at the end of the school year at one school, parents and kids got to check out the inviting new menu, a taste of what’s to come: pork carnitas tacos with a salsa bar, cilantro-lime rice, all-natural, local hot dogs and more.

Now, the truck is in week three of serving summer meals at two locations every day, serving about 100 of the 4,000 meals served every day in summer. More than a dozen other sites serve the bulk of the food, and everything is prepped in a central production kitchen at the start of each day. The menu is the same on the truck as at the other sites.

Summer menus were created by the nutrition services team with an awareness that all the menu items would have to be food-truck friendly as well.

“Every day is something different,” Rostomily says. “We offer a lot of sandwiches and fresh summer veggies, pizza, cheeseburgers, burritos, chicken sandwiches and the kids’ favorite: cheese-stuffed breadsticks.”

When the next school year starts this fall, she plans to use the food truck as part of her plan to keep more high schoolers on campus for lunch (they have the option to leave for local fast food).

“I’m hoping to be able to offer them an option of eating at the food truck so they don’t have to leave campus,” Rostomily says. “We’re working on a food truck-only menu with pulled pork sliders, shaker salads, carne asada, carnitas tacos, fruit parfaits, banh mi and torta sandwiches.”

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