Trends in sustainable food trucks

By Janine Windsor
June 17, 2014
sustainable food trucks

Food trucks, as they exist now, are a relatively new face on the food service block. Gone are the days of simple sandwich trucks that only visit labour worksites. The food trucks of today are hip and trendy, serving up everything from comfort food to gourmet items and desserts. They are also well connected to their customers with the help of social media. Perhaps it’s that connection that keeps some truck operators on the cutting edge when it comes to what their customers want to eat, and experience.

It’s no secret that consumers are becoming more tuned in to climate change issues and have a strong desire to patronize businesses that align with their social and environmental priorities. According to surveys, people are more likely to dine at a restaurant that is making efforts to be more sustainable. Some food truck operators seem to be picking up on this better than anyone, and are using innovation to incorporate sustainability into their space-challenged trucks.

Considering most food service businesses already have a large eco-footprint, can a food service business that’s premise is based on mobility, thereby requiring more than usual fuel inputs, really be ecologically responsible? A food truck is also essentially takeout food only, which brings the added environmental pitfall of extra waste from food containers, napkins and beverage containers. Energy use provides another challenge: food trucks are essentially running “off the grid”, which means they often rely on generators that run on fossil fuels (usually propane), in addition to the fuel used to travel to and from their daily destinations.

Fortunately, many dedicated mobile restaurateurs are committed to running a sustainable business, accepting the challenges of doing so from a food truck. In order to achieve a sustainable food truck, focus must be placed on the worst offenders first: waste and energy.

Although there is no space for washing reusable dishware, food trucks can be creative in reducing takeout waste. Offering locally filtered water to customers that bring their own bottles avoids the sale of bottled water, and offering discount incentives to customers who bring their own utensils and containers can have a dramatic impact. The waste that is created can be diverted from the landfill with composting and recycling bins along with adequate signage to encourage customers to compost and recycle wherever they take their meal.

Luckily, it’s not all about overcoming challenges: there are also environmental advantages of running a food truck. A small space means a small kitchen and less energy-intensive equipment. Equipment is unlikely to be left on beyond the time it’s needed, and minimal storage space means water efficiency and saving is of primary importance. The trucks are also typically only in use during peak hours.

If a truck is able to utilize alternative or renewable fuel sources, the carbon footprint can be greatly reduced. Biodiesel provides a great alternative to fossil fuels for getting around town. Unfortunately, not all cities have reliable suppliers. If a biodiesel facility is available, used oil can be recycled into the truck’s own fuel. Solar power is another option that some trucks are using to harness natural energy for their operations. In the kitchen, wood ovens are appearing on trucks, further decreasing the reliance on generators. SmartKarts, a zero-emissions, plug-in truck, is the method of transport for some U.S. food trucks.

Nevertheless, the environmental inadequacies of food trucks that do exist can potentially be offset by targeting other areas, and food trucks offer a unique opportunity for innovation.

Local and organic food sourcing is an important aspect of any restaurant’s sustainability status. The Naaco Truck embraces hyper local, and the owners have installed a rooftop garden that provides fresh herbs for their flavourful dishes. The Purple Pastry Chef, a baked goods truck in Calgary, doesn’t have a garden on its roof but grows organic fruits and flowers for its treats at a home garden. Cheezy Bizness keeps plastic waste down by not offering straws, and choosing the simplest and 100 per cent recycled wrappers for their grilled sandwiches. All three of the aforementioned mobile eateries have been able to steer clear of plastic utensils by creating menu items that don’t require them. Failing this, compostable utensils made from renewable or recycled materials are a great improvement over plastic.

If a food truck operator keeps the above principles in mind, and searches for ways to be innovative within their own unique business model, sustainability can be added to the menu with confidence.

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About the author

Janine Windsor is the founder and President of LEAF (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice), a national non-profit organization that is dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of the food service industry. LEAF is the only nation-wide food service certification in Canada.

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