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.
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.
“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.”