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.”

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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8 Comments

  1. Hi Armand — as you know from my and others’ comments at last night’s hearing, SFUSD high schools WERE surrounded by catering trucks until this ordinance took effect, so the implication that my concern is some kind of paranoid flight of imagination is not fair or justified.

    Here’s what I said at the hearing in explaining that situation.

    ***
    Until a few years ago, San Francisco students had constant access to soda, chips, French fries and other junk foods right at school. When we activists finally convinced the school district to banish the daily sales of junk food at schools, catering trucks drove up to the front doors of schools all over the city to provide the same unhealthy items. That’s the reason children’s health advocates successfully called for limiting catering trucks’ access to schools.
    … Granting an exemption to one particular catering truck opens the door for every other catering truck to request a similar exemption, making a mockery of the law. Other catering trucks were doing business in their locations before the law passed, just as this one was – that’s the reason the law was passed. There’s no justification for allowing certain businesses to ignore the law and requiring others to obey it. And the notion that someone should be exempt from a new law if it requires them to change their behavior is a new concept in law enforcement — and it’s not a concept that leads to a law-abiding community.
    ***

    I don’t think anybody would disagree that El Tonayense’s food is delicious, so it’s not like some kind of “gotcha!” to quote Ms. Norton as saying so. I say so too. I am tempted to eat at those trucks whenever I’m in the Mission, but I have to try to resist because of my doctor’s stern insistence on a low-fat, low-sodium diet. When I do, it’s a splurge. So it was a little strange to hear several speakers insist that the food is healthy. Latinos in the U.S. have the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension of any ethnicity, largely because the cuisine is not adapted to our more-sedentary culture.

    And there are many reasons why the barrage of bashing of SFUSD school food was unfounded, unfair and harmful to the low-income students who need it most, by the way. The information in a previous Mission Local article claiming that few John O’Connell students eat the food and that the number is dropping was just flat-out inaccurate — by which I mean, the figures were wrong. The statistics show that far more students eat the food than the article claims, and the number is rapidly increasing. I’ll be posting commentary on my own blog later today, including correcting the misinformation in that Mission Local article, after hearing it cited at yesterday’s hearing.

  2. Also, I need to point out that it is disingenuous for the owner to claim he doesn’t serve students and point to his sign as proof. Many people have witnessed students buying items from the truck through the fence over the past few years, and the truck only posted its “we don’t serve students” sign six weeks ago.

  3. I’m a food chemist. I can guarantee you that the food served at this taco truck is no less healthy than the junk my daughter is served at the O’Connel HS cafeteria. I’d happily say this on the stand.

  4. The small number of kids at O’Connell that are allowed off campus can go to any number of corner stores and buy whatever junk they want. The notion that junk food should be reclassified as not food is a step from the sublime to the surreal. Having said that I myself often wonder what a “cheese product” is like velveeta – maybe it would make a better building material.

    If the food police want to outlaw everything that does not fit into some contemporary idea of what is healthy and nutritious (which by the way seems to change from year to year) we will turn every corner market into an illicit trade.

    As far as smuggling food from the truck into the school, the health of the students would be far better served if the District spent more time keeping weapons off campus than tacos or, God forbid, sodas.

    What a ridiculous spectacle the taco debacle has been. The only thing left is for Superintendent Garcia to make some kind of public comment. But he has the good political sense not to alienate the Mission District by going anti-toyanense. On the other hand – he was the one at the BOE that wanted to ban sodas in the teachers lunchroom while holding a COKE in his hand.

  5. I live at 20th and Bryant and have a 9 year old daughter. She grew up eating once a week or so at that taco truck. It was always a special treat to walk over to the truck and get a taco. Their food is not as unhealthy as McDonalds or any other fast food place. Too many white-upper-middle-trying-to-be-hip-did-I-say-white-people moving into the Mission. I am a white boy from Detroit moved into 20th and Bryant 15 years ago so I am not cool either. I Just like the local food.

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