Healthy is probably not the first word that comes to mind when you mosey up to a food truck for a meal.
But Robert Hsu wants to change that.
"People don’t seem to realize that food trucks do offer healthy food,” he said.
The Penn biology and business student, along with fellow students Mitch Gissinger and Jessica Chen, have launched the Healthy Food Truck Initiative.
The program is designed to promote good-for-you eats at the sidewalk lunch spots and help reverse the obesity epidemic in the city. Currently, about 900,000 of Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are either overweight or obese, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
Hsu came up with the idea after conducting a survey about food truck eating habits at the University of Pennsylvania. He says a number of people responded, saying that they avoided eating from food trucks because they perceived them as “unhealthy.”
“I thought that was so interesting because there are food trucks out there that do, sort of, healthy food and people just don’t know about them,” Hsu said.
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Working with vendors in University City, Hsu says the initiative will help food trucks purchase healthier drinks like water and juice. They’ll also advertise healthy menu items at the participating trucks and push for the posting of nutritional information on menus.
“A lot of people have said to make food trucks healthier, they want calorie counts or ingredient lists and stuff like that,” he said.
Three trucks have already expressed interest in partnering with Hsu and are eager to alter any negative notions about their street-side fare.
“It’s a wonderful thing to promote healthy food trucks, number one. Number two, if we could notch up all the trucks a bit, that would be nice,” says Debbie Carson of Magic Carpet food truck.
For the past 29 years, the mobile vegetarian hot spot has been providing an alternative of sorts to the heavier food options among the University City food truck community. Carson says any initiative that can provide people with healthier options is welcomed.
“A lot of the kids still eat junk food because, you know, they’re kids. But if you can get a better quality food, all across the board, it would be a good thing,” she says.
Jihed Chehimi also jumped at the chance to have his fusion truck, Chez Yasmine, become part of the healthy food truck project. Chehimi does not sell soda and already offers a bottle of water and piece of fruit with each meal a customer purchases. He says promoting good eating habits will not only help his business, but, “I think the freshness (of the food) brings customers,” Chehimi says.
Food truck regular Jamie Lazin says if a truck offered better options, quickly, then he’d probably buy the lighter meal.
“I go to food trucks just for convenience so it doesn’t matter if it’s greasy food or healthy food, if the healthy food option is available, I’ll go,” he said.
Penn student Alan Shi describes most trucks offerings as “unhealthy, greasy sandwiches” that are “pretty cheap.” He thinks calorie counts could be key to the program’s success.
“I’m sure if they put ‘This many grams of fat’ next to a greasy sandwich, people will think twice,” Shi said.
Hsu is crowd funding – or raising money through online donations – to help cover the expenses for signage, advertisements and to purchase healthier packaged foods for the trucks. The initiative has already raised more than half of its $1,000 goal.
The initiative will work with the trucks in September to determine plans of action and launch its campaign in October. Depending on the reception, Hsu says he’s hoping to expand the project in the spring, and maybe even get other food trucks to add healthy food options to their menus and take part in the project.
“Hopefully, at the end of the day, I will be sending more people to eat a food trucks overall,” Hsu said.
No matter what Hsu and the food trucks do to promote the lighter fare, food truck patron Ashley Barley says only one thing matters: taste.
"Some of the bad food is the best food,” she said. “Some nutrition stuff is good, and some of them ain’t.”