By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
After nearly an hour of impassioned community comments and debate by the commissioners, the San Francisco Board of Appeals decided Wednesday night to give the El Tonayense taco truck until June 9 to negotiate a compromise with the school district and the Board of Supervisors.
In the meantime, the appeals board will allow the truck to stay in its current location at 19th and Harrison streets, near John O’Connell High School.
“What we’ve achieved here is to have everyone go home unhappy,” Board of Appeals Commissioner Michael Garcia joked, referring to the five-member board’s unanimous ruling.
The board was morally and legally torn between the conflicting demands of supporting a local business that is loved by many in the community, and upholding a city ordinance and the wishes of the San Francisco Unified School District and health officials.
Dana Woldow, co-chair of the school district’s Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, testified at the hearing that allowing the taco truck to stay “is really like putting a big old soda machine out there in the yard.”
While she failed to clearly connect the truck to poor student health, Woldow maintained that she had “no proof that the truck is helping students to become thin.”
Stephen Williams, the lawyer for El Tonayense, argued that there was a “strong element of unfairness in this case.” The taco truck, he said, has very little to do with lousy student health and the district’s case against it is a result of “shooting in all directions and hitting this particular target.”
A city ordinance adopted in 2007 prohibits taco trucks within 1,500 feet of a school.
“For domestic abuse you often see only a 500-foot stay away order, not 1,500 feet,” Williams said.
Comparing their menu to the “bagel dogs” and “pizza dippers” served by the district, Williams said El Tonayense fare is healthy and made from fresh ingredients.
Opponents have said that although only seniors can eat off-campus, the truck’s tacos and sodas can end up on school property.
Williams countered this with evidence. To illustrate that students could not pass food from the truck through the chain link fence surrounding the school, Williams showed pictures of a soda can held next to the fence’s small chain links.
Saying that she had visited the truck’s location, Commissioner Kendall Goh also expressed skepticism that students could pass food or beverages through such a narrow gate.
The truck’s location at 19th and Harrison, Williams said, attracts customers from the local climbing gym and PG&E facility as well as several nearby live/work studio spaces. (At this point, it must also be disclosed that Mission Loc@l’s offices are two blocks from the taco truck.)
Williams also pointed out the two other taquerias that lie right outside the front door of the school.
If the city refuses to let the truck stay at its current location, the truck will have to relocate, perhaps two blocks up to 17th and Harrison streets. Moving means not only having to develop a customer base in the new location, but also competing with other nearby taco trucks and restaurants, Williams said.
After the hearing, Esquivel Santana, whose brother Benjamin owns the truck, insisted, “We don’t serve students.” The truck has a posted policy of not serving anyone under 18 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Despite the alleged unfairness, those wanting to move the truck have supporters in high places. A school district representative presented a letter from Superintendent Carlos Garcia urging the board to support the ordinance.
Garcia, however, indicated he was ready to negotiate a compromise. That willingness spared the board a decision that some members considered outside their authority.
“Even though I have sympathy for this business,” said Goh, the issue should be left to the school district and the Board of Supervisors.
Nonetheless, parents and city officials were steadfast in asserting that the truck should be moved from its current location near John O’Connell High School.
“Healthy eating is essential to student achievement,” said Jill Wynns, a Board of Education commissioner who helped draft the school district’s Wellness Policy. El Tonayense, she testified, should be forced to park elsewhere.
While Rachel Norton, another Board of Education member, agreed, she acknowledged that Tonayense serves excellent food.
Not all school officials are opposed to the truck’s presence, however. Gateway High School, a college prep charter school in the city, has contracted the taco truck to serve school lunches twice a week, according to the truck’s lawyer Williams.
Parents, however, said let one taco truck through and soon schools will be surrounded.
“Granting an exemption to one particular catering truck opens the door,” to every other truck, said Caroline Grannan, a parent of two district school students and a volunteer at the Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee. To do so, she said, would make “a mockery of the law.”
Despite the opposition from parents, the truck has won the hearts of many in the local community. John Oram, a local Mission resident who also runs the blog Burrito Justice, said the city should “focus on ice cream trucks,” which can frequently be found outside elementary schools.
On his blog, Oram has referred to Tonayense as “possibly the world’s best taco truck.” (At this point, it should be disclosed that this Mission Loc@l reporter agrees with that sentiment.) He even hired the truck for his wedding rehearsal dinner.
Woldow of the Nutrition Committee, however, pointed out a study indicating that ninth graders at O’Connell had much lower health indicators than students at nearby Mission High.
Santana, the taco truck owner’s brother, said they are “taking any step to come up with a solution,” adding that Williams had emailed Superintendent Garcia immediately after the trial, and they had contacted District 9 Supervisor David Campos’ office the day before.
“We don’t want to start all over.”