It’s a classic Mexican food standoff.

The El Tonayense taco truck versus the John O’Connell High School Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee. Can the taco truck stay or must it go?

In short, are the tacos and burritos El Tonayense will serve its customers on Wednesday less nutritious than the meatball sub and bagel dog the San Francisco Unified School District will serve its students?

The matter will be heard officially Wed., April 1, at 5 p.m. at the city’s Board of Appeals in city hall, Room 416. Unofficially, Mission District residents and the two parties aired their differences earlier this week.

A customer receives his lunch at El Tonayense on 19th and Harrison.

While serving a steady stream of customers at lunch on Tuesday, Francisco Morales at El Tonayense expressed pure frustration.

“It’s a source of work for our families, and a source of food” for the community, Morales, 36, said in Spanish.

Parents on the O’Connell Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, however, argued in Mission Loc@l’s earlier report that the truck siphons off students from eating in the school cafeteria known as the “Beanery.” But as Mission Loc@l reported in March, it takes less than a taco truck to keep students out of the Beanery.  Students described the school lunches as “soggy, undercooked and wet.”

Nonetheless, the nutrition committee insists that the truck should adhere to a 2007 city ordinance prohibiting catering trucks to operate within 1,500 feet of a public middle, junior or high school. The truck, they said, needs to move outside of this radius.

Others disagreed.

“I think the food here is good. I can’t imagine the school food being much better,” said Brandon Griffin as he finished his lunch on the sidewalk near the truck on 19th and Harrison streets. Griffin, 47, is a graphic designer who lives nearby.

A taco costs $1.75 (a full-price meal at John O’Connell costs $3) and comes with two tortillas, spicy or mild salsa, radishes, slices of jalapeño and lemon, and enough grilled marinated pork, chicken or beef to cause a collective cringe from the vegans at nearby Café Gratitude. But wait, a vegetarian option is also available.

Moreover, El Toyanese argues, the truck got to 19th and Harrison before the school.  It’s been parked at the same location since 1996—five years before the the John O’Connell building went up. It’s become a favorite of local residents, employees and even the blogosphere.

Ronaldo Carreon, a product designer at nearby Bridge Design, thought those interested in students’ health should look at the larger nutrition issue.

“It’s like they’re singling out this little guy,” instead of larger influences like Burger King or McDonald’s, Carreon said as he polished off his lunch with a cigarette.

“I think it’s ridiculous to have them move just for this reason,” he added. “If it’s causing other problems, sure.”

Dana Woldow, a parent of three current and former San Francisco public school students, heads the committee. She couldn’t be reached for comment, but she tweets.

Her Twitter feed noted the results of a health survey pointing at a clear decline in student health. Latino students with a healthy body composition at O’Connell dropped from 82 percent in 2001 to 47 percent in 2008, she noted in a tweet dated March 29.

Iran Ponce, chronic disease coordinator and the nutritionist at Mission Neighborhood Health Center, was reluctant to put the blame solely on the taco trucks.

“It’s not that they’re bad if you only eat one taco,” Ponce said, adding that the problem comes “if your only source of food comes from the taco truck.” She noted that much of the meat served from taco trucks and taquerias gets its flavor from being cooked with its fat still on.

Ponce also expressed concern about recently seeing two children with Type 2 diabetes, which is an indicator of poor diet and little exercise, and several other children with “very high” cholesterol levels.

But alas, the culprit may not be just the taco truck, she said. “Definitely these taco trucks are better than some of the cafeterias,” she responded with a sigh.

Ponce also noted the good hygiene grades of the Tonayense trucks outside of the Health Center and O’Connell—A-plus, or a perfect score from the Department of Public Health. Meanwhile, the restaurant on 24th Street, where the trucks’ food is prepared, received a score of 90—respectable but not warranting the department’s  “symbol of excellence.”

“It all comes down to education and portion control,” she said, referring to students’ health.

Morales from El Tonayense said that few students–at least Latino students–even eat at the truck because  more than 80 percent of Tonayense’s customers are Americans not of Latino descent.

And, taking parents’ concerns into consideration, a large sign is posted on the truck. “El Tonayense does NOT serve any person under the age of 18 years during school hours of 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.” While the truck staff did not appear to be checking IDs, it was also apparent that O’Connell students are aware of the truck’s 18 and up policy.

Four O’Connell students sitting in El Faro, located 75 steps from the school’s front entrance, said they never went to the truck because of its policy. As seniors, they could all elect to leave campus for a lunch of taquitos and tortas over the school cafeteria’s lunch of spaghetti with meat sauce and chicken nuggets.

Another restaurant, Rosy’s Restaurant, lies even closer on the same block of the school.

Asked which they thought was healthier, the cafeteria or El Faro, the students were unanimous in choosing the taqueria.

Esta es pura raza,” said Luz Bram.

Moreover, truck owner Benjamin Santana pointed out, the truck and its corresponding restaurant on 24th Street employ eight people. More than this, however, Santana declined to say, and cited the proximity of the hearing as his reason.

But Morales serving up lunches at the truck, spoke his mind. “It’s not fair for us to move.”

“We’re not selling drugs. We’re not selling alcohol. We’re selling food.”

See below or click for a ZeeMap of El Tonayense taco trucks in the Mission District, and restaurants near John O’Connell High School.

Armand Emamdjomeh

Armand is a photojournalism and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is originally from Baton Rouge, La. His work history includes being a paper pusher in Los Angeles...

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22 Comments

  1. mmm. that picture makes me hungry! Students should only be so lucky to feast on such a work of culinary art at school!

  2. Love this article! My name is Alison and I work for Oldways in Boston, the creators of the Latino Nutrition Coalition. I really enjoy your site and provided a link to your article on our official LNC Twitter @LatinoNutrition. Hope you get to check it out!

  3. Mrs. Woldow, please don’t blame the “clear decline in student health” on a taco truck outside of your kids’ school. Your children presumably eat breakfast, dinner, snacks, and most weekend meals at home. This means that the food your kids eat at the taco truck is a tiny fraction of their total food intake. If they have food-related health issues at such a young age, my guess is that the problems begin at home. You might want to take a closer look at what you’re feeding your children…

  4. Honestly the nutrition committee goes far and beyond what is good and right for the students. They have so much budgetary concerns that they seem to almost always forget about the students and the fact that they need good, healthy, and enough food to survive and do well.

    If this taco truck has been there longer than the school, and the law, and is willing to not serve students during hours beyond school hours, they deserve a reprieve. Small businesses are always bearing the brunt of San Francisco’s laws.

  5. if there is an ordinance prohibiting catering trucks to operate within 1,500 feet of a public middle, junior or high school then he needs to move. Otherwise, remove the ordinance.

  6. Hmm, maybe the problem is not the school cafeteria, nor the taco truck. Maybe it is each student and their own family’s responsibility for what each student eats!

    This rule about taco trucks is beyond stupid.

    I always thought that America was about personal responsibility. It’s not like anyone is required to eat at the school cafeteria or the taco truck. Students could bring a lunch from home.

    Oh wait, there is a subsidized lunch program, right? So this means someone is on the dole for federal money (the school cafeteria).

    Let the market decide whether or not the school lunch program, the taco truck, a lunch from home, or any other food is the right one for the students to eat.

    Inform the students and families about nutrition, but then get out of their way.

    The taco truck is a legal and good business. If it succeeds, it is because their customers want what they have. Same with the school cafeteria.

  7. I think this is a legitimate concern from the school b/c I always wondered about the clealiness and sanitation issues with these ‘roach coaches’. Taco trucks are not accepted in general as a real choice for nutirtious food, who are you fooling? Usually a substitute for the lack of another local option. I ate 4 pastor tacos almost everyday for about a year, and then I got hit with a stomach virus so bad it kept me up at night. I never pinpointed the culprit, but I started eliminating risks and the taco truck was at the top with Taco Bell and Subway – one of those three caused my sickness. Unfortunately the all three have not seen another dollar of my business, and it will be a while before my stomach will allow me to take another chance. I think the taco truck owners are going to not only prove their nutrition value, but also public health records. It is just a matter of safety for our kids, I think, and my opinion is not motivated by anti-Mexican, or anti-taco sentiment. They do call them roach coaches for reason. Good luck.

  8. Generally taco truck portions are relatively small. Especially traditional types. The one thing I never hear is the possibility of increasing physical education. Diet is obviously important. But with the decrease in budgets and demands of “No child left behind” P.E. is often sacrificed.

  9. Also, I love how we say we want our kids to steer clear of sugary drinks and junk food, and we praise a taco truck that sells ten kinds of soda and processed fruit drinks , as well as crappy snack cakes and cookies, so I don’t see this as consistent with kepping our kids risk free from diabetes and obesity. None of the food in a taco truck is sourced locally which is another transition schools are trying to make and they are usually represent the cheapest commodities on the market which are then sold at full retail prices. No wonder a restaurant will branch out to a taco truck b/c they are only concerned with making more money and to get rid of all the cheap food.

  10. This part;

    Asked which they thought was healthier, the cafeteria or El Faro, the students were unanimous in choosing the taqueria.

    “Esta es pura raza,” said Luz Bram.

    Moreover, truck owner Benjamin Santana pointed out, the truck and its corresponding restaurant on 24th Street employ eight people. More than this, however, Santana declined to say, and cited the proximity of the hearing as his reason.

    ….doesn’t make any sense. Who wrote this?

    I think the truck should stay, however.

  11. Shouldn’t the presence of the nearby vegan cafe, Gratitude, balance out the taco truck?

  12. There is a Korean taco truck that is all the rage in Los Angeles. They serve awesome Korean/Mexican “fusion” food. People drive miles to find the truck. It has a following on Twitter.

    I’ve eaten for years off these trucks, never gotten sick. We need to open our minds.

    Check out the Kogi BBQ truck in L.A. look at the pictures of the food. Does it seem unhealthy to you?

    Maybe something like this can occur here.

    http://www.lataco.com/taco/kogi-korean-bbq-taco-truck-los-angeles

  13. ex_taco_fan-

    You probably got sick from Subway, not the taco truck. The taco trucks cook all the food at high temps, killing off the bacteria. Subway, meanwhile, has all those meats and veggies in those open trays sitting there picking up germs, germs which don’t get killed by cooking.

    Besides, all trucks get rated by the city inspectors, and this particular truck, as the article says, got a A+.

    Now the El Faro “restaurant” right next to the school, which gets overrun with students throughout the day (I used to work nearby)… well that place got me sick a couple of times before I learned to never go back. The El Tonayense truck is by far the best food around there.

    Frankly, it’s probably the well-politically-connected people who run El Faro who have started the crusade against El Tonayense, their competition.

  14. “I ate 4 pastor tacos almost everyday for about a year, and then I got hit with a stomach virus so bad it kept me up at night.”

    Im sure if you eat 4 of anything almost everyday for atleast say 25 weeks out of the year im sure your stomach would have a reaction to it. Especailly if its spicy which if im sure is in AL pastor. Good one buudy dont blame the truck or real latin food. Check out Taco bell which isnt Mexican food at all or subway. Pendeja!

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