Every college student is always on the hunt for delicious, cheap food. But too often these qualities are mutually exclusive. If that slice of pizza didn’t cost you more than $4, then odds are it’s just your below-average, sub-par pizza that is big on tough crust and light on the cheese and tomato sauce. But who wants to spend more than $4 on a single slice of pizza? Between tuition, books and everyday necessities, stretching what little money we have is a lot of work, and expensive food just doesn’t fit into the equation.
But wait! Here come the food trucks to save the day! Belching dark clouds of diesel exhaust, they speed in, park and begin slapping together hastily-prepared food products with ingredients sometimes stored inside the home—and outside the jurisdiction of health inspectors. As students trying to study or chat with their friends become increasingly irritated by the noise and pollution of electric generators, food truck operators serve up products that barely pass the taste test and are then marketed to starving students. Yes indeed, more food trucks are certainly the answer to expanding choice for college students.
Lest this be considered undue exaggeration, let us consider UCR’s very own Culinary Chameleon. The food is mediocre at best, and it’s certainly not a good deal for the price. Due to a conveniently placed electrical outlet, the students sitting near Physics 2000 to relax are spared loud, obnoxious noise—except when orders are blared out and when the Culinary Chameleon decides to pack up and head home for the day. Food trucks elsewhere may not be so lucky as to be provided with a constant source of electricity.
To be fair, the Culinary Chameleon does not appear to illegally store its food elsewhere. But if it does, we shouldn’t be surprised: one health inspector in southern Nevada reports finding food stored illegally in a vendor’s house at least once a month, where there is no guarantee of the food’s safety. And that’s only for permitted vendors; that is, vendors who are operating legally in the first place. The same health official told of even higher rates of unsafe food handling by vendors conducting business without a permit.
Health risks may not only be present in the food, but from the exhaust emitted by the food trucks themselves. Who wants to chow down on a burger as the pungent odor of diesel fuel wafts through the air toward your meal? And the problem may be worse than just a foul smell and taste. Gasoline generators have been shown to emit carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that is hazardous to human health and can kill in large enough quantities.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that in a period of two months, there were 10 deaths and 78 other nonfatal incidences of carbon monoxide poisoning in only Alabama and Texas, “nearly all of which were caused by gasoline-powered generators.” In each of these instances, the generator was located outside the home, just as the generator is located outside the food truck.
If people inside a house can get carbon monoxide poisoning, what’s preventing the people operating the food truck from being poisoned too? And though carbon monoxide dissipates in the free air, what about the students standing near the generator as they wait to order in a long line? Even a generator positioned more than 15 feet away from a house may not be enough to ward off carbon monoxide penetration.
It is true that the Culinary Chameleon does not use a generator for its electricity. But should more food trucks descend on Riverside, there are not enough electrical outlets for them all. And a large amount of food trucks may result in another irritation: more congestion on the already cramped streets of Riverside. Food trucks have nowhere to set up shop except for the parking lots that are already filled with the cars of UCR students. Do we really want to make traffic worse than it already is?
Most damningly, there is no guarantee that the health risks, additional congestion and increase in noise will result in better food—just look at the Culinary Chameleon. Ideally, increased competition would culminate in only the businesses that offer the highest quality food for the lowest prices succeeding. But this should be the case regardless of if the competition is a food truck or a typical restaurant. Instead, we have seen that the presence of a food truck has not changed the unpleasant status quo. For the cheap and unsatisfying restaurants to finally close their doors, we need an eatery that offers unique, delicious and inexpensive food. And more likely than not, this will come from a brick-and-mortar cafe, not a food truck.
We students do not have enough good options to choose from—this is an undeniable fact. But replacing the poor quality restaurants with poor quality food trucks in this food desert is only offering more of the same. If food trucks really want to be considered as an alternative, they need to up their game by addressing their health concerns and coming up with food that is actually worth buying. Food trucks can do this, and if they do so, I will welcome them to UCR’s campus with open arms and eagerly partake in their unique food offerings. But until that point, food trucks will not better the disappointing food situation at UCR. They’ll only make it worse.