We love food trucks, especially when they come with really good food, a lot of personality, and an interesting backstory. One such truck is Brainfood. Never heard of Brainfood? Well don’t worry, I hadn’t either until recently. I was actually perusing the Internet on a non-foodie mission (imagine that) and found myself on the Duval County Public Schools website. It was here that I came across a page titled Food Truck Project. Of course I was intrigued. A quick search, which turned into a lengthy search, yielded hardly any information about the food truck, so I set out to learn more about this project.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to check out the truck and meet some of the people behind the project at a recent Relay for Life event in Hemming Plaza. I learned that the Brainfood food truck is a unique partnership between Duval County Public Schools and Chartwells, the innovative food service for our local schools. Chartwells has a number of programs in place to encourage healthy eating and food education in our schools. They are all about giving students ownership and choices in the food they eat. Purchasing a food truck seemed like a logical move for this outside-the-box company. Their intent was to use their newly-acquired food truck to serve lunch to secondary students around Jacksonville. Around the same time, Dr. Nikolai Vitti had started working on plans for a program to serve as a hands-on classroom, offering students real world experience outside of their traditional school setting. As superintendent, his goal was to start an initiative that would foster teamwork and provide students with learning that covered a broad array of subjects. When DCPS learned of the Chartwells food truck purchase, they met with representatives of the company and proposed a partnership. Rather than DCPS pursuing the daunting task of raising funds to purchase a food truck of their own, it made a lot more sense to partner with a company that could provide the resources and support necessary to get the project up and running. Chartwells embraced the idea, and it was then that the Food Truck Project was born. Anyone who has had any interaction with food trucks knows that running a food truck takes a lot more than just skills in the kitchen. It was decided that a food truck would be a perfect classroom on wheels, offering students experience in finances, logistics, and of course the culinary arts.
So far, the entire initiative has been student-led, with support and resources provided by Chartwells. From the initial business plan, to the design of the truck, to menu development, food prep, customer service, marketing, and managing finances, Duval County students are the driving force behind this classroom on wheels. And these students are motivated. On their own, these students are talented and inspired. One Frank H. Peterson High School student I spoke with shared with me one of his recent successes – a win in last month’s Chartwells Chopped cooking competition. His win came along with a scholarship that he plans to put towards culinary school. This student’s passion for food was evident as he described his winning dish – a creamy avocado alfredo pasta dish that made my mouth water just thinking about it.
With such inspired and talented students, it is no surprise that the Food Truck Project has been successful so far. The truck launched at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year. In its first year on the streets, the food truck was manned by students from five area schools. Five more schools joined the project for the 2015-2016 school year, and the addition has sparked a bit of friendly competition, which adds even more incentive for the participating students. Team “Fired Up” is made up of students from Frank H. Peterson High School, Atlantic Coast High School, First Coast High School, Wolfson High School, and Andrew Jackson High School. Team “Chop Chef” has students from Terry Parker High School, Raines High School, Robert E. Lee High School, Ribault High School, and Mandarin High School. Teams compete to earn points based on criteria like menu development, finances, and profitability. The winning team gets to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they helped to successfully manage a profitable small business…and the bragging rights are an added bonus.
When I caught up with the “Fired Up” team at the Relay For Life, they were all business. It was impressive to see the whole setup process unfold, as they got ready to start serving food. The culinary students arrived first and got to work prepping food on the truck. I was able to sneak a peek inside the immaculate and well-organized truck as they were setting up and preparing food. I was impressed with how focused the team was. Next on the scene were the logistics and finance teams to determine where to set up tables and tents and to get ready to take orders. The students really seemed to work well together, with each team lending its own expertise in the process. There is no doubt that such experience in professionalism and teamwork is preparing these students for success in the workforce.
So how is the actual food? So far, students are keeping things simple, offering a small number of choices. I was told that a lot of the students prefer making sweets, like brownies and a very tasty Mt. Dew Poundcake. Popular entrées include things like gourmet grilled cheese, chicken tacos, bbq meatballs, and buffalo mac n cheese. At the Relay For Life, students unveiled their first ever burger, which they dubbed the Smackdown Burger. It was served with a choice of either chips or pasta salad. I’m happy to report that both the burger and the pasta salad were delicious. The burger was well seasoned and was smeared with a creamy garlic spread. Crispy lettuce and a thick slice of fresh tomato topped off the Smackdown Burger. While the meat itself was not the best piece of meat (it was thin and a little dry), the concept, seasoning, and execution was spot-on. Give these kids slightly more premium piece of meat and their burger could contend with some of the better burgers in town. The pasta salad was also great. The noodles were cooked well and were accented with bits of red peppers and celery to add some crunch. I like that it wasn’t sloppy and overdressed, as is often the case with some pasta salads. The dressing was flavorful and light. So I would say that the food is good. If I hadn’t already known that the truck was run by high school students, I never would have been able to tell based on the food or the service.
The DCPS Food Truck Project is a great example of education done right. Dr. Vitti explains, “The food truck initiative is one of our strongest when it comes to providing our students with real life work experience and the ability to work together across career areas.” Not only are the students gaining real world, marketable skills, but they are producing a great finished product as well. Some of these students will no doubt go on to pursue a career in the culinary arts. Some may become entrepreneurs and small business owners. No matter what path they take, this mobile classroom is planting the seeds for their future success.
As for the future of the Food Truck Project, there are plans to eventually branch out and participate in more events. Throughout the week, the Brainfood food truck travels around the area to different high schools, offering affordable and exciting alternatives to the standard lunchroom fare. Outside of school hours, these motivated students can be found hard at work on the food truck, devoting their own time and energy to its success. As of now, they are focusing on small, thoughtfully selected special events just to get their feet wet. After a break over the summer months, the project will get rolling again. Follow their journey on Twitter and keep an eye out for the bold graphics and delicious eats from the Brainfood food truck! And be sure to let these students know that their hard work is not going unnoticed.
For this review we welcome a member of the JRR family: Rhonda Kovar grew up in the heart of North Carolina before moving to Florida after getting hitched in 2002. She is a graduate of Lenoir-Rhyne University and a lover of all things crafty, musical, or edible. Rhonda loves finding new and delicious ways to turn her two tiny picky eaters into future foodies. You should follow her on Instagram.