Mommies vs. Hipsters: Taco truck smackdown!

Sorry, I have to be a little snide about today’s smackdown at the Board of Appeals. We were there for a hearing on the infamous taco truck, which parks outside John O’Connell High School every day, in violation of a city ordinance that prohibits catering trucks from doing business within 1500 feet of a school. A slew of earnest mommies (and I include myself in that category!) spoke during public comment to urge the Board of Appeals to uphold the revocation of the truck’s permit.

Speaking in favor of letting the truck continue to  violate the law were the truck’s (rather creative, judging from his interpretation of the facts) attorney, and two customers —one of whom said that the truck should be allowed to stay in its current location because, despite hiring the truck to cater his wedding celebration, it was “too inconvenient” to walk two more blocks in his South of Market neighborhood to buy a burrito from the truck. With friends like these . . .

The facts of the case are simple: In 2003, the Board of Education passed the Wellness Policy, which pledged to raise the nutritional standards of food served at San Francisco public schools and help students make healthier food choices. Four years later, after concerted advocacy from parents, policymakers and student nutrition experts, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ordinance banning catering trucks. Why? Because once our schools banned the sale of sugary sodas, candy and high-fat, high-sodium snacks on school property, the catering trucks literally drove up to the doors of the high schools and began to tempt students with those same items.

What’s infuriating about this case is how long it has taken to actually get some action. After months of trying to work with the truck owner and simultaneously trying to get the Police Dept. to enforce the ordinance, the truck’s permit was revoked in late September of last year. Then the dance began — the truck owner filed for an appeal hearing, then filed several successful requests for postponements, allowing him to continue to do business while the hearing was pending. Finally, today, members of the SFUSD Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee got their day in court,  six months after the owner’s permit was officially revoked.

And unfortunately,  we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the City ordinance to actually be enforced. While Board President Frank Fung gets a gold star for pointing out how long the truck owner has managed to delay the proceedings, the Board ultimately decided that the truck should get until the end of the school year to try to find a compromise location that the school district will accept, or lobby the Board of Supervisors to get the ordinance amended.  The owner’s attorney claims that alternative, legal locations proposed by the SFPD are deficient for various reasons, and oh, then there’s the poor customers, who have to walk those long blocks South of Market.   (It’s worth noting that the truck’s burritos, while delicious, are by no means diet food. A couple blocks’ walk might do the customers good!). Will the threat of really, truly losing their catering permit as of June 9 make a difference in the owners’ willingness to negotiate? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.


7 responses to “Mommies vs. Hipsters: Taco truck smackdown!

  1. Hi everyone –
    Comments are now closed for this item, for two reasons: First, they’re getting nasty and I don’t need to provide a forum for people to sling insults at me. Do that on your own blog. Second, Don is right that I have to carefully measure the amount of time I spend on issues (for those of you who don’t know, serving on the BOE is essentially a volunteer effort — one that I love and that I find to be a privilege, but still). I’ll freely admit that the taco truck was not the reason I spent all of last year running for this office. I support the Student Nutrition & Physical Activity Committee and their efforts to improve the food served to children in our district, and this is a big issue for them. So I showed up to testify on their behalf at the Board of Appeals, and I’ll stand by everything I’ve said there and subsequently. If you really want to understand our position on the truck (as opposed to simply making cracks about “nutritionistas” or “food censorship”), please visit this link: — there’s a principle here, whether you agree with it or not. When you start allowing exceptions to a law that took years of advocacy to get passed, you water down that law and you negate the efforts of a lot of people to draw this particular line in the sand.
    That’s it. Back to all the other burning issues in the school district.

  2. I knew the BSC was a crusade, but I didn’t realize it was mine. I thought it was ours. And I don’t think tacos are trivial. I really think you are missing the point though.

    We want children to have good diets even if no one can agree on what that means. But we are not going to change eating behaviors through law enforcement. We do that through education and by example. If you tell a kid a taco is bad, you better not get caught in a taqueria. It like the Superintendent ragging on teachers for coke machines in the teachers lunchroom while he’s holding a coke in his hand at the BOE.

    I understand both sides of the issue have a point. I was there at the Board of appeals as you know. I just wish people would pay as much attention to the things they take for granted, like our democratic way of life (which come into play in the BSC) as much as they do some colorful hotbutton issues like taco stands and caloric intake.

  3. By the way, one of our committee members did a little research on the lawyer’s assertion that no member of the public spoke at a particular hearing, which the lawyer claimed proved that the public had not been notified. It turns out the hearing he referred to is a meeting that (as standard procedure at that point in the process of creating legislation) does not allow public comment. So the claim that the lack of public comment proves the public wasn’t informed was misleading — either deliberately or due to ignorance.

    Members of the audience who were aware of the situation and could have corrected the misinformation the lawyer was giving the commission did not have a forum to do so at that point. So it’s of some concern that a lawyer could misinform this commission, the commission trusts and potentially acts on the misinformation, and there’s no recourse to that situation. Strange.

  4. I’m amused by the “control freak” subtext to many of the objections to the district’s efforts to enforce the law. Once a law is passed, we don’t get to decide who is subjected to it and who isn’t — if you don’t like the law, change it! I am spending my time urging that this law be equally enforced because a lot of staff and volunteer time was spent years ago getting this law passed in the first place.

    And Don, this issue has *nothing* to do with your crusade about the BSC, and I think it’s more than a bit manipulative to try to link them here. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but after receiving your email I responded to you privately and asked the staff to take another look at the issue you raised. So I resent the implication that somehow I am “ignoring” your complaint in favor of an issue *you* see as trivial.

  5. The importance of a healthy diet notwithstanding, I am at a loss to understand why the District and the BOE would put this much effort into getting rid of a taco stand. While I try to get the District to adhere to its stated strategic plan and democratically inspired goals of community engagement, it has made no effort whatsoever to address any of the issues and instead spends its time trying to move a taco truck. Emails sent to the BOE about violations of State Law regarding the publics right to review District documentation is disregarded. That and other violations are apparently of little consequence. But if a kid eats a taco, that is an offense! God save the taco stand!

  6. Thanks for posting your view of the appeal publicly, I’m glad to have the opportunity for all views to be represented. That said, no thanks for the cheap shots, cf. “hipsters” and “poor customers.” While I can’t speak for the truck’s owners willingness or lack of willingness to negotiate, I can speak to the facts as I understand them.

    Having struggled with and eventually lost substantial weight myself, I absolutely sympathize with the cause. But the testimony we heard yesterday established no linkage between El Tonayense and unhealthy eating. In fact, it served to underline the difficulties of controlling what kids eat in general. That’s not El Tonayense’s fault, it’s a fact of life, and they should not be the scapegoat.

    Meanwhile, the issues of my neighborhood are very real. After night falls, and the schools and businesses nearby empty, the middle of Harrison street can be a lonely place. There’s nearly nowhere to buy an inexpensive meal late, and the streets can intimidatingly empty. By serving high-quality inexpensive food and contributing to the street life that makes a neighborhood feel safe at night, El Tonayense makes a real difference in the neighborhood–and one that wouldn’t be the same half a mile away at 17th street.

    Serving healthy food to SF’s kids is important, but so is maintaing the character of its neighborhoods. Moving El Tonayense from 19th and Harrison would undoubtedly hurt the neighborhood. I’m not yet convinced it would help the kids.

  7. Given that the purpose of that ordinance was to get catering trucks to CHANGE their practices (of selling high-calorie foods right outside schools), the amount of serious discussion of whether there was intent to grandfather existing catering trucks was positively surreal.

    The whole proceeding — and in fact the function of that board — was pretty eye-opening. The eventual vote isn’t unacceptable from my personal perspective, but the fact that the board seemed very willing to accept without any backup or context whatsoever some of the lawyer’s assertions — and for a while appeared poised to base their actions on those claims — seemed a little dubious to me, in the greater context of how laws and city policies are made and enforced.

    (Such as: the taco truck’s lawyer claimed they should be exempted because they weren’t directly notified about the law. But what’s normal procedure in the case of a new law — is the city required to notify everyone affected? If no other catering trucks were notified either, should they all be exempted too and the law scrapped? Is this a new standard the lawyer just invented for expedience? Yet the commission’s president for a while sounded willing to grant the appeal based entirely on that comment by the lawyer. WTF? Also, the lawyer claimed that no members of the public spoke at the hearings prior to the passage of the law, but that’s not true, because I did. And I saw him take an oath to tell the truth, too! I’m shocked — shocked.)