(Photo courtesy of Healthy Food Truck Initiative)
“Healthy” and “food trucks” don’t exactly sound as harmonious as “mac and cheese.” But several University of Pennsylvania students, with the help of some choice collaborators, are trying to change that.
The Healthy Food Truck Initiative is a food truck certification program that allows food trucks to prove that they are “healthy” and gain recognition for doing so.
Here’s how it works: There are 11 criteria that trucks could meet to become certified, such as offering whole grain options, offering at least two vegetarian options, listing items’ ingredients and providing labels for allergens on the menu. Food truck operators submit an online application denoting whether their trucks meet each requirement “always,” “sometimes” or “never,” along with examples. The HFTI crew uses a scoring system to calculate how well the trucks meet the requirements and then visits the trucks to verify the applications’ accuracy. Approved trucks get a sticker declaring them “Certified Healthy.”
The criteria for “healthy” were formed with the help of health professionals, food truck owners and Penn nutrition professors. The first certification period opened in January and is ongoing through May.
The group was founded in Spring 2013 by Jessica Chen, now a senior studying operations management, marketing and nutrition, and Robert Hsu, who graduated in 2015 and now serves on HFTI’s advisory board.
Food trucks are incentivized to participate because it allows them to differentiate themselves from others, and to take part in something that serves the public good, according to Chen.
“We don’t think every food truck needs to be a salad truck,” Chen said. “But by certain small changes we can encourage them to make through the program, we can provide more healthy options at these really accessible, really convenient places throughout Philadelphia.”
"By certain small changes we can encourage them to make through the program, we can provide more healthy options."
Several collaborations have gotten the initiative this far, including those with Penn’s Student Health Service and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. WSII is supporting the student group through its Impact Certification program, which offers “funding, guidance and light oversight,” said Stephanie Kim, associate director of community strategy for WSII.
From our Partners
But it’s The Food Trust that’s helping HFTI reach trucks beyond Penn’s campus.
The partnership came about by chance about two years ago, said Diana Minkus, senior associate for The Food Trust’s Night Market food truck program. A colleague found a HFTI flyer on Penn’s campus and passed it on to Minkus, who recognized that the initiative shared a mission with The Food Trust — to improve public access to healthy food.
Now, The Food Trust is driving business plan development and offering technical support while HFTI members are driving the “on-the-ground work,” Chen said. Minkus also connected the group to the Philadelphia Mobile Food Association, of which she sits on the board, so the students could pitch their initiative to food truck vendors all over the city for feedback and to recruit participants.
Chen said she was excited that The Food Trust reached out because of “the overlap of vision of creating a healthier food environment in Philadelphia.”
“It was in our long-term vision that we wanted to work with them,” she said.
Both parties benefit from the partnership.
“As a fairly young, student-led group, we’re learning a lot from them,” Chen said. Even so, “I was pleasantly surprised by how much space and freedom they gave us with running the program.”
“Personally, I love being involved with something that involves these young people who are so passionate about something that I think is so important and vital to the city,” Minkus said. “I also think it’s great that we can offer an area of expertise to these students in terms of our relationships” with vendors.
According to Minkus, the initiative has been viewed favorably by both vendors and customers. Five trucks have become certified since the online application a few weeks ago: Magic Carpet Foods, Chez Yasmine, Schmear It, Surf and Turf, and Jerry’s Kitchen. Most are parked near Penn’s campus, but the initiative’s organizers hope to sign up trucks across the city. Chen said HFTI also hopes to eventually develop an app around the initiative.