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Are we still obsessed by the car culture?

Drive-ins, drive-thrus, convertibles, and now food trucks.

The rise of food trucks and the mobile food industry. Dig it. “Hang Ten Tacos,” “Cod Save the Queen,” and the “Vegitup Truck.” Considered roach coaches for years, they are now the rage, universally accepted as cool. Sheepishly I admit that I am little conflicted having spent years advocating mass transit and walkable communities. Do these fit into your vision of an efficient future?

Some love “Curbside Cupcakes.” Food trucks are featured at events. Jerk pork sandwiches and fried green tomatoes in Florida. Street-food favorites.

Enthusiasts like me huddle curbside in the cold, oft dim lighting, and filth to buy scrumptious, and now a bit expensive, gourmet finger foods. Crazy about my eggplant pocket in Cambridge, and those sweet potato fries at a TreePeople event. Ouch. So good. Trucks specialize in the mouthwatering.

But gotta ask the question: Are food trucks the RVs of restaurants? If so, how cool is that?

Many eco-folks criticize RVs for their fuel inefficiency. Food trucks are the same. “The Rolling Stove” gets 4 – 5 miles per gallon and is “being hammered by gasoline prices.” The owner claims that his truck is “completely non-aerodynamic. It’s like driving a block down the road.” And he can’t do more than 50 MPH. Many food trucks also use gasoline to run generators when parked.

Back to RVs? Why take your living room on the road? Why not support local economies by staying at inns and bed and breakfasts? Does it really make sense to wheel restaurants around? Hmmm… does bringing the kitchen to the people make sense, or is there a net energy benefit in bringing the people to the kitchen? Depends no doubt. There’s an app in LA that tracks food trucks’ locations, so the people may be driving to the trucks too. Similarly, people drive distances to restaurants of choice, or to meet friends.

Gotta’ love the “white-hot food truck industry,” and gotta’ celebrate progress on all fronts: In late February, New York City Mayor Bloomberg welcomed New York’s first eco-friendly food truck to the City, a truck that runs on compressed natural gas and that bakes pizza on board in 90 seconds.

What else can be done to green food trucking? Mobile Cuisine Magazine, “the complete online resource for the mobile food industry,” presents seven fuel saving tips for operators, from driving habits, to route planning, and routine maintenance. There’s even a dummies book: “Running a Food Truck for Dummies.” Food truck consultants boast that they can save operators enough money to travel further to outlying areas. Hmmm.

That said, restaurants are also energy intensive. They require lots of lighting and ventilation both in the kitchen and dining area. While there is great variation, they tend to be open long hours, for multiple meals, and serve a wide variety of menu options. So many restaurants no doubt use more energy per meal served that many food trucks. But that’s before the drive.

And there is another big variable: What’s cooking? Food trucks’ on-board energy use varies widely: Some cook or bake at a restaurant or warehouse location, then deliver and sell via food trucks. Others cook, or blend, or bake, or juice, fry, chop, on board. Heavy grills roam the streets.

A eco-food truck web site lays out parameters for really cool: locally farmed, organic food, fair trade products; trucks that use biodiesel for mobility, propane for cooking, and solar power; provide compostable packaging and utensils; and that certainly don’t idle. A website tracks eco-friendly trucks, a search engine of sorts. I read of a truck that “conquered the streets of LA for three years,” now with “its first brick and mortar.”

 

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