Let me begin by making one thing clear: I have nothing against food. I like food – all kinds of food. I shop for food, bring it home, cook it and feed it to my family regularly. Sometimes I go to restaurants where someone else prepares the food and serves it to me. I also like trucks. If I wasn’t doing what I do for a living, I swear I’d be a long-haul truck driver.
That said, I cannot get my mind around the breathless excitement that greeted the news that 15 new food trucks or carts are about to show up on Vancouver’s streets, bringing the total number to 114.
The announcement on Thursday became front-page news. Radio stations, TV stations and online new sources all carried the story, many of them featuring a grinning Mayor Gregor Robertson about to scarf down something presented to him in a cardboard tub. The new additions range from the not-at-all exotic macaroni and cheese truck to the very-Vancouver espresso kiosk on a bicycle.
Also announced was that some of these trucks will be allowed to operate on Hamilton Street in front of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre – something that has become known as “a food truck cluster.” The remaining trucks will do business outside of the downtown core.
Recent history tells us that people will line up for this stuff.
I don’t get it. It’s not as though the food is cheap – a lunch will cost you about 10 bucks, the same as the noodle house or shawarma joint up the street. The food in many cases is good, but it’s hardly life-changing. And the lines can be long. There is of course the novelty factor – food carts and food trucks are relatively new to the city. “Look! It’s food … on a truck!” There are at least two television shows dedicated to food trucks, with one of the shows spawning a cookbook of food truck recipes. And there are the irresistibly charming stories of the young owner-operators of the trucks living their dreams of entrepreneurship and striking out on their own with little more than a small bank loan and a secret sauce recipe.
To me the whole thing smacks of a cult and in fact shares some of the qualities of a cult: an excessively zealous and unquestioningly loyal commitment to the cause – even in the face of logic; elitism – where members are convinced they have some sort of special status; and a preoccupation with recruiting new members. The difference is that few cults enjoy the official endorsement and regular affirmation that food trucks receive from our civic leaders. Council apparently cannot get enough of these things. The plan is to issue more permits over the next three years – bringing the total number of trucks and carts to 150 by 2016.
All of that aside, it’s important to remember the genesis of the expanded food cart program. It was March 11, 2005, when Vision Vancouver city Councillor Heather Deal brought a motion to council to “Increase Healthy Food Options in Vancouver.” Ms. Deal said at the time the motion was inspired by a “green cart” program in New York which brought healthy foods like fruits and vegetables to low-income neighbourhoods. The motion talked about expanding the range of foods beyond the hot-dog carts that ruled the day and making available locally grown food that would create local economic benefits and increase food security. It talked about rates of childhood obesity and how everyone should have access to affordable and nutritious food regardless of where they lived. It was my own naiveté or wishful thinking that made me imagine Mr. Gauthier’s fresh-produce truck rolling into my own low-income neighbourhood every Thursday evening when I was a child, and my father’s inexplicable delight when he bought brussels sprouts and broccoli from the truck. I imagined the same might happen in Vancouver neighbourhoods where fresh vegetables might be hard to come by.
Needless to say, in the five-year evolution of the street food program, that hasn’t happened. Look up “green cart” on the city’s website now, and you’re likely to be directed to the solid waste department.
Food trucks and carts in the meantime have flourished, with every conceivable cuisine available. I may not get them, but there are a whole lot of people who like them and are willing to hand over real money when they finally make it to the front of the line.
It would be nice, though, to see the rest of Ms. Deal’s motion become reality. Bringing healthy and fresh food into the city’s “food deserts” is a good idea and one worth pursuing.
I look forward to seeing what the next 15 trucks have to offer.