What Are Food Trucks Impact On the Environment, Neighborhoods

Food trucks, more commonly known as food carts, are mobile units that sell food, usually a particular kind of food like hot dogs, pizza, or Tex/Mex. Foodies, or groupies of these food carts, are people who make it their business to know all about particular kinds of food and promote that type to their friends and acquaintances. In New York and California, two places where food trucks are big business, these foodies – hipsters and yuppies who have made an art form of food-on-the-go – have created a whole niche industry to replace the typical restaurant.

The question is, are these mobile food trucks more of a problem to the environment (than restaurants), or less? And which has the real commercial advantage?

Tina, the food truck

Tina, the food truck

Obviously, a food truck uses a lot more vehicle fuel than a restaurant, but that’s because restaurants outsource their vehicle fuel use to wholesale food companies, who deliver the various breads, salad greens and meats used to create meals. If you add that to the amount of gas and electricity needed to run a restaurant, food trucks come out well ahead of the curve, since their patrons – the so-called hipsters and yuppies who share concern for the degradation of the environment – usually walk from a place of business to pick up a snack or lunch. In fact, the walk is part of the mystique. As is the fact that many food trucks have built their reputation on providing nutritionally sound snacks and meals.

Restaurants are also saddled with the need to provide sheltered seating, lighting, air-conditioning or heating in season, a (usually large and energy-intensive) kitchen, and bathrooms. Food trucks escape this mandate for the most part, operating only when weather permits or leasing space in or next to a skyway, office park, construction site or outdoor mall and returning to a parking area when the day is over. And this, becoming a neighborhood icon rather than an eyesore, is how food trucks escape the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. In that respect, they are like the taggers who create intricate and beautiful graffiti images. Banksy, in New York City, comes immediately to mind.

In fact, the only place a restaurant has a real edge over a food cart is in the area of food containers. Food trucks are required to use plastic throwaways or fiber-based and recycled dishes. Restaurants have the advantage of using dishes and cutlery that are washed and returned to  service. The one factor that has not been measured in this equation is the amount of labor and energy involved in washing dishes. In many states, restaurants (over a certain size) are required to use dishwashers running very hot water, and the energy used in heating that water may put food carts out ahead.

Restaurants pay taxes and service fees, but so do food carts. In fact, the emergence of  these food-on-the-fly trucks, or carts, has created a sort of cult following, as future magnates and CEOs use smartphone applications like Food Truck Fiesta and Eat Street to keep tabs on their favorite vendor. In Los Angeles, food truck foodies can log into the TruxMap. In Minneapolis (Minn.) they have a whole street, officially known as Nicollet Avenue but informally called Eat Street, devoted to food, including food carts that dot the Mall from one end to the other offering all manner of Midwestern treats made famous at the State Fair (ready for spaghetti and meat balls on a  stick, Minnesotans?).

Also called mobile gourmet canteens, or (less enthusiastically) roach coaches, these food wagons are driving a trend that has even mighty New York City setting a precedent by licensing a food cart vendor, Pera Turkish Taco Truck, to sell liquor as well. The Taco Truck operates at the site of the former Tavern on the Green. Farther uptown, Between Park and Madison Avenues, sits a fresh-food cart that’s doubly green. In addition to the freshness of its offerings, GustOrganics Organic Carts NYC uses solar power to keep them fresh and the air clean, and relies on biodegradable packaging to keep it that way.

For food trucks, many of whom have gained a foothold thanks to Twitter feeds, the future looks bright, especially in Portland, Oregon, which has earned its reputation as the food cart capital of the nation thanks to an estimated 450 food trucks of various sizes and kinds. Our favorite, however, is Comida, in Boulder, Colorado, which offers a Mexican feast prepared under the eyes of patrons using only the freshest ingredients, dispensed from a big pink truck named Tina.

So when it comes to environmental footprints, who wins, restaurants or food trucks? I’d have to say the food trucks. What do you think?

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