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Monday, March 4, 2024

Aggie Eats food truck mitigates food insecurity on campus

The passionate student-staffed operation gives back to UC Davis

 

By LYNN CHEN — features@theaggie.org

 

On campus, there is a wide selection of food trucks to visit as students. Whether you’re a loyal fan of Shah’s Halal or a curious customer of the Smoothie Operator, there will always be a business for you.

One truck that stands out from the rest is Aggie Eats, a service that aims to mitigate food insecurity among students.

From Monday to Friday, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Aggie Eats food truck distributes delicious, healthy meals to UC Davis students lining up for the program.

The operation runs on a pay-what-you-want pricing structure, so students can get the food for free or for a few bucks. Money that is paid goes right back to supporting the operation.

Meals that the food truck freshly serves include pork carnitas bowls with pinto beans and tortilla chips with pico de gallo salsa, chicken and potato bowls with broccoli and cheese as well as chicken tacos with papas con rajas and Spanish rice. Almost every day, the menu also offers vegan or vegetarian options for its meals.

Food insecurity at UC Davis is quite prevalent. In 2022, 42% of the student population reported having very low to low food security, according to the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey

“We have had some students […] that come to the truck tell us that they survive on only us [for food],” Sal Ramirez, food truck coordinator for Aggie Eats, said.

Food insecurity on campus has especially been exacerbated by rising prices from inflation. 

“The cost of food has gone up so much,” Ramirez said. “It makes it really hard for people of all age groups [to access proper nutrition].”

Ramirez added that these challenges are especially real for college students who are just beginning to learn to budget.

Additionally, food insecurity impacts the emotional well-being of a student. A person may feel shame over their circumstance or fear that there is a stigma associated with their food insecurity, even though the situation may have been uncontrollable in the first place.

Fortunately, Aggie Eats is focused on relieving the stress over this issue for students.

“It’s a safe spot when you come to the truck,” Ramirez said. “There ain’t no shame about it.”

“We all go through things and that’s okay,” he added. “Hopefully, we can brighten someone’s day and make it a little easier for them.”

At Aggie Eats, Ramirez is responsible for leading a team of student interns and Aggie Compass staff to make the food truck happen.

Even though the food truck operates for only four hours a day, a lot goes on behind the scenes to make sure the program runs smoothly during those hours. 

Meals that are served mainly come from the Segundo Commissary Kitchens. Every morning, the kitchen staff cook and prepare all the food to be distributed later in the day. Every meal item is then bagged or boxed in large, separate containers to be picked up by the food truck.

At the same time, the food truck itself needs to be prepped for the day as well. Every morning at 7 a.m., student interns go and pick up the food truck vehicle from the Unitrans center. They complete tasks such as filling up the water tank in the truck, loading the food onto the vehicle and checking fridge and meal temperatures on the truck.

During its operating hours, student interns and staff at the truck package and portion out the food to each customer. On average, Aggie Eats distributes around 500 meals a day.

At the end of the day, the truck’s team works together to clean and return the vehicle back to the Unitrans center.

A lot of thought also goes into deciding the menu for students, which Ramirez achieves in collaboration with the Student Housing and Dining Services.

For example, the menu items change every week and are seasonal to make the eating experience more enjoyable for students. In fact, the truck has been quite active on its social media accounts to gauge students’ opinions on what it has been serving.

“We kind of want to give people what they want,” Ramirez said. “You want to feel good about what you’re eating.”

Ramirez also needs to consider the capabilities and equipment available at the Commissary Kitchens to cook certain foods.

However, since the goal of the program is to make nutrition and food as accessible as it can be for students, Ramirez has been considering making trade-offs in the ingredients of the food.

“We might start steering away from more expensive cuts of protein, such as beef,” Ramirez said. “You might end up seeing more chicken on the menu.”

This decision comes back to the fact that it’s difficult to know and measure the varying individual levels of needs in students, so the program has been trying to scale up its overall impact to support everyone.

“We are just trying to meet a wide range of needs, and it is complicated to do so,” Ramirez stated. “Our variety might be cut down, but at the end of the day, we’re just trying to make the most impact on students.”

With a great cause and plenty of effort going into it, it is no surprise that the Aggie Eats food truck is popular among students.

“It’s a bright green truck roaming around campus, so it definitely does draw a lot of attention,” Marilou Vazquez, a second-year community and regional development and Chicana/Chicano studies double major as well as a student intern for the Aggie Eats food truck, joked. 

“But, I really think it’s a very popular thing because not only are our meals really good, we also serve a really good purpose,” Vazquez said.

Bianca Tomat, a third-year biotechnology and food science double major and student manager and social media chair for the food truck, added on to this statement. 

“We were kind of a victim of our own success,” she said. “We never really had to promote or market [the Aggie Eats food truck].”

Tomat has been part of the program since its inception on campus. 

“It was really fast growing and students knew about us really quick,” Tomat stated. “We were almost not prepared for this many students to just come to us.”

Furthermore, the program itself is powered by a tight-knit community of students and staff passionate about its cause.

“The whole food truck team is very close,” Vazquez said. “We have such a good relationship and environment in the workplace.”

“I take a lot of pride in our team, because I do believe that our team has this very awesome energy to it,” Ramirez said. “[The team] is very loving, it’s very playful. This is something that is very rare to see in any job. I think this is the thing I enjoy the most out of this experience.”

Ramirez hopes to nurture future leaders who can create work spaces where people can be happy, be themselves and learn the importance of interpersonal relationships.

“We’re doing something cool and everything [for UC Davis],” he said. “But it’s very, very important to me to try and make an impact on the students that work in our team.”

 

Written by: Lynn Chen — features@theaggie.org

 

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