Around noon every school day, culinary workers climb aboard a big blue truck on the Davis Senior High School quad, fire up the onboard kitchen and dole out Blue Devil burgers, grilled vegetable sandwiches and daily specials.
Food trucks have become a popular attraction at community festivals, microbreweries and concerts in the Sacramento region. But this is the first time one has taken up permanent residency at a local high school campus.
In the three short weeks the truck has been in use at Davis High, the student line has grown longer and the food more interesting, students say. On Wednesday, even before senior Jorge Rocha, 17, opened the order window, classmates were outside the culinary van, aka food truck, ready with their food choices.
Davis High began charting unknown territory when Dominic Machi, district director of student nutrition services, designed and helped create a food truck for student lunches. It has a six-burner range with oven, charbroiler and flat grill along with everything needed to meet health and design requirements and U.S. Department of Agriculture school food mandates, he said.
Sophomore Isabel Tramontano, 15, said she had not seen anything like it. “Most schools don’t bring food trucks on campus,” she said as she waited to order a hamburger.
The project was part necessity, Machi said. The school’s cafeteria is about to be torn down to make way for a nearly $8 million All Student Center in late 2017 that will include a cafe and student gathering spaces.
But it was also inspirational. Machi said he wanted to capitalize on the food truck wave of popularity to create an upbeat atmosphere for students serving fresh foods.
Students joined food service workers to prepare and deliver meals in rapid-fire succession. To set the mood, the truck’s speakers blared Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful,” which became a backdrop to the din of dozens of students waiting to order.
On the day’s menu, hamburgers were the most popular menu item among the 135 students ordering from the truck. The option featured a whole grain bun with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion and thousand island dressing, served with hand cut Cajun fries. Machi said the dressing added shortly after the Sept. 6 start of the service provided zip and quickly boosted the food’s appeal.
Kolbin Barker, a 16-year-old junior, said there was something special about that sauce. “It’s kind of like mayonnaise and jalapeno,” he said.
The other daily regular, the grilled vegetable sandwich, was served with garlic lemon aioli with pesto pasta sauce.
“After this food truck, there was noticeable improvement” in the food, said senior Kyle Qi, 17. He said the only thing he misses this year about the cafeteria is the small snacks that were for sale.
Wednesday’s specials were hoisin barbecue country style spare ribs with hand-cut Cajun fries or cold yakisoba noodles with chicken teriyaki and Thai vegetables.
Toward the end of the lunch rush, nearby tables and grassy areas were filled with groups of students chowing down, socializing or reading. Among them were friends Sanjana Bajwa and Juhye Mun, each 16 and a junior. And each was eating food brought from home.
Juhye said she preferred her own reusable containers rather than buying food served in containers tossed after lunch. “I am part of the Green Team,” she said, describing it as an environmental club focused on recycling. Sanjana said she brought her lunch, a turkey sandwich and vegetables, “because I know what I put into it.”
Those who don’t bring their lunch can walk several blocks to a market or eatery for food or they can drive to downtown Davis. About 18 percent of the school’s nearly 1,800 students are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches. School officials say food truck lunches meet that need.
Students can use cash at the truck – $3.50 an entree. But most provide their student identification numbers, allowing the school to either withdraw that amount of cash in the student’s account or anonymously credit the account of a student eligible for free lunches.
Machi said he knows of no other district-owned food truck serving daily school lunches in the region.
“It offers a lot of flexibility,” he said. Once the All Student Center is complete, he said, the truck can be used at other schools in the district, sporting events and other venues. “I wish I had at least two more of them.”