An idealistic concept without much success (yet)
There are multiple reasons for aspiring business owners to be lured into the food truck industry – from the autonomy it provides and the thrills of an ever-changing menu, to the low start up costs. A report from the National League of Cities states that the US industry revenue was $650 million in 2012 and is expected to reach approximately $2.7 billion by 2017. Food trucks are considered to have smaller environmental footprints than standard brick-and-mortar restaurants, as the gas and electricity used to power air conditioning/heating and lighting, paired with the fuel used for food service deliveries outweighs the fuel use and on-demand power use of a truck. Many successful trucks have pledged to use local produce to cut their environmental footprints, further support local business, and shorten their supply chain. But those who have tried in Albuquerque haven’t been quite so successful.
Food trucks in Albuquerque that have attempted to be more eco-friendly by incorporating responsible packaging, and/or shorter supply chains into their business models have encountered troubles that have most often resulted in them going out of business. The main reasons for these environmentally sustainable business models being economically unsustainable are:
Costs of local and organic produce, and sustainable packaging
Tim, of the ABQ Food Truck co-op, says that as much as trucks would like to buy local/organic produce, they can’t afford it. “They have to go with the highest quality and lowest prices in order to stay viable in the business.” He gives an example of food containers, which range from foam containers (cheapest), to non-recyclable paper containers with petroleum based plastic linings (about double the price), to containers that can be recycled (about three times the price), to compostable containers (about five to six times the price of foam), as an analogy of the linear price increase with quality of food. Shawn Weed, the head chef at La Posada (UNM’s dining hall) provided information on price discrepancies between two conventional vs. organically farmed staple ingredients: tomatoes and sliced turkey.
Lack of customer willingness to pay fair prices
As Monte of Skarsgard Farms and formerly the Harvest Truck says, “supporting local food is not a matter of accessibility but rather having the means and desire to buy local foods.” While educating children about pesticides, GMOs, subsidised fuel, and health impacts of various diets may open their eyes to the benefits of local/organic food, it will not change the fact that sometimes the only viable option for a meal seems to be one from the dollar menu. The expense of food is a sentiment common to many residents of New Mexico, a state whose average per income capita is 43rd in the US. If the bulk of people in Albuquerque think they can’t afford to buy local/organic produce themselves then they are highly unlikely to purchase prepared food that uses this fresher and more nutritionally rich, yet more expensive produce.
The drought-prone, desert conditions of New Mexico don’t provide the best growing conditions for fresh produce. Kimberly, the previous owner of The Seasonal Palate food truck, says that she used healthy, seasonal produce in her menu because that’s the way she likes to eat, but “finding suppliers with a regular product [was a problem]. Because we are so limited here in New Mexico, I have to go outside of the state to get regular items.”
Other challenges include:
- Limited buying power due to small size of business
- Additional costs of conforming to the same rules, regulations and licensing as brick-and-mortar restaurants
- Irregular location reduces consistency of customer base
- Restrictions on where the food trucks can do business
- Owners must collect their produce rather than have it delivered
- Weather affects customer desire to eat outside
- Associations with old “roach coach” stereotype
The Street Food Institute
The Street Food Institute is a new training program that has partnered with CNM in order to transform the prospects of Albuquerque’s food truck industry. They have started collaborating with local food trucks and engaged in partnerships with financial institutions, other small business development groups, local farms and future food hubs for the students to participate in. Program director David Sellers says: “A big part of our long term goal is to make local farm stuffs available to local residents who right now cannot afford it, again keeping our dollars local, and everyone benefiting from healthy produce.”
What you can do
- If you’re a farmer, try to make a connection with a food truck owner/operator
- Support your local food trucks. Get menu and location updates at ABQ Food Trucks or follow your favourite truck through their own social media.
- Ask if there’s any organic and preferably local produce in any of the menu items at your favourite food truck and order that!
- Vote with your dollar – buy local and sustainably produced foods everywhere you shop!
-Posted by Lena