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The Environmental Mileage Of Boston’s Food Trucks

Arts & Culture | October 4, 2016

Welcome to Fruitlands, a Harvard community of “spiritually elite” vegans who eschew chemicals, artificial ingredients, and excess clothing. They dole out their wares on wooden, mobile carts, limiting production to maintain an independent spirit while preserving the environment and growing their little community.

This might sound like a utopian version of the food truck-happy Cambridge we know today but, in fact, Fruitlands was a failed experiment in 19th century sustainable living. In an attempt to eat healthily and equitably, the vegans ran out of food, their struggle chronicled by Louisa May Alcott in 1844’s “Transcendental Wild Oats.” But fast forward to 2016, and a food-starved Cambridge is near impossible to imagine. With a wellspring of upscale cafés, farm shares, fast-casual eateries and food trucks, we might finally achieve the Fruitlands vision.

Food trucks are a white-hot trend in the U.S., and in Boston specifically, they’re a multi-million dollar industry. A long way from the wooden carts of yore, mobile markets like Clover and Chicken and Rice Guys have become an economic and cultural boon to socially liberal, urban-minded foodies all over the Hub.

Over 100 food trucks have popped up in Boston in the last five years alone. A free app created by students at Northeastern, called Feed Me, tracks the locations of about 60 food trucks around the city at any given time, making each one even easier to reach. For Alice Pabst, a marketing specialist for the popular Vietnamese sandwich truck chain Bon Me, there is a clear appeal: “[Food trucks and mobile markets] make fresh, affordable, tasty food in record time.”

At first glace, they do seem greener: trucks are smaller, more direct, and often more veg-friendly than brick-and-mortar restaurants. They operate only when weather and foot traffic permit, wasting fewer resources. But is Boston’s love of food trucks really a sustainable way to feed the city?

Environmentally, the hype is justified—to an extent. It is difficult to compare food trucks to conventional restaurants for a few reasons: there are major differences in hours, clientele, location, and corresponding foot traffic. Still, a few organizations have given it a shot, and the mobile truck comes out on top. When The Atlantic’s urban studies branch CityLab compared D.C. cupcake truck Curbside Cupcakes to its storefront neighbor, Red Velvet Cupcakery, they found that the truck released only 1/6 the amount of carbon dioxide as the bakery (adjusting for hours of operation and cupcakes sold).

While there are currently no government mandates for food trucks to maintain environmentally sound practices, Boston Food Truck Blog writer Meg Marrs explained that most mobile operations prepare their food out of commissaries or shared kitchens, like Commonwealth in Kendall Square, shrinking their individual footprints and cultivating a community. “The most popular food trucks in Boston are the ones that emphasize a local component,” Marrs added. “One of my favorite food trucks, Mei Mei’s Street Kitchen, uses locally sourced products in their menu items. They also regularly rotate the menu to reflect seasonal items.”

“Food trucks also need to prep a ton,” said Marrs. “Boston has specific rules about what kinds of food can be cooked on a truck, so a lot of trucks need to cook their dishes ahead of time. That, along with limited kitchen and storage space, means that many trucks relentlessly track how much they’ll need to load on the truck for any given stop, helping prevent waste.”

One big downside of food trucks is their demand for fuel and generator power, and subsequent release of excess carbon monoxide. Portable shops require propane, which emits slightly more CO2 than a restaurant kitchen’s natural gas does. But this shortcoming pales in comparison to restaurants’ outsourcing of fuel costs to other food companies that deliver their breads, dairy products, greens, and meats—not to mention the heating, air conditioning, and electricity costs of a full-scale building and parking lot. Food carts also emit less methane—a more harmful greenhouse gas—than unlit natural gas, which could leak out of a restaurant’s piping.

In terms of energy, Boston food trucks still have potential for improvement. Consider New York City, where a 2015 initiative led to the launch of 500 solar-natural-gas-hybrid carts onto the city streets this summer. By incentivizing vendors to lease energy-efficient trucks at very little cost, the pilot program is expected to cut NYC fossil fuel emissions in half, according to an independent analysis by Energy Vision. As the non-profit Environment America points out, if these practices were implemented nation-wide, we could spare the atmosphere from 28 million additional fossil fuels every hour.

Boston’s biggest problem, then, is the waste produced by each food truck. Plastic to-go containers are still the standard for most carts, since washable dishes are not a viable option. But it’s only a matter of time before the less eco-friendly vessels are effectively phased out. Eco-trucks do have the option to switch to recycled or corn-based takeout containers. Entrepreneurs might also follow Portland’s lead, where a company called GO Box lends reusable, returnable containers to nearly 100 trucks around the city via an inexpensive subscription service.

Clearly, the socio-environmental impact of food trucks goes far beyond trendy cuisine. Just ask 17-year-old Mattapan resident Shavel’le Olivier, whose youth-run mobile farmer’s market delivers fresh produce to food deserts around Boston. She noticed a lack of affordable, healthy food in her neighborhood from an early age and, in high school, took matters into her own hands. “Mattapan is a neighborhood with some of the highest rates of obesity and heart disease—yet we have very few restaurants, and only one grocery store,” said Olivier. “This is one way local residents can get organically grown fruits and vegetables. We bring it right to where they live. I can see it improving the health of Mattapan, even if it’s just in a small way.”

While Olivier’s team is mostly comprised of volunteers, the relatively low cost of food trucks also opens the door for more non-profit organizations to enter the food market—like food-delivery “school bus” Fresh Truck—and higher wages for Boston’s culinary mainstays. Take Bon Me, for example. Pabst notes that the money their company has saved (thanks to the mobile model) fueled Bon Me’s decision to raise employee minimum wages to $13/hour. And by supporting local farms, the community rises with it.

Innovators like these not only invigorate the city with a symbiotic, entrepreneurial spirit, but they’ve made healthy and responsible food the new normal. The mobile model allows anyone with enough “drive” to jump into an otherwise cutthroat business (and stand a real chance) while producing a fraction of the waste. And as their fare gets greener, wages increase, and accessibility reaches an all-time high, food trucks can transcend a clichéd “hipster” image and pave the way toward real, sustainable change. Boston might not ever become Fruitlands, but we’re getting close.