Doroteo Lopez, 58, a truck owner near the University of California, Los Angeles, who completed the study, says the meals thrilled some of his customers—others, not so much.
“People like greasy food,” he explained. “They like the flavor.”
Even so, it is important to try to reach the lunch-truck crowd, said Deborah Cohen, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation who led the federally funded project.
“If you can make this work with loncheras,” she said, “you can probably make it work anywhere.”
Many people don’t realize they are increasing their risk of chronic disease every time they eat a plate piled high with fats and carbs, Cohen said. And the lunch trucks—or loncheras—often serve a Latino clientele that already has high rates of diabetes, obesity, and other diseases.
The food-truck campaign is the latest push in L.A. County and elsewhere to make it easier for people to eat better. Corner markets are offering more fresh fruits and vegetables. Some restaurants are reducing portion sizes and providing more nutritious children’s meals. Many schools have nixed the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages.
“It seems like a lot of piecemeal things, but that is the approach that’s needed,” said Susan Babey, a senior research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, which isn’t involved in the project. “Any one change isn’t going to reverse the whole epidemic that has accumulated over the past 30 years.”
On a sunny February day, Ramirez’ customer Yael Ross, a 29-year-old teacher, ordered a veggie burrito, minus the cheese and sour cream. Ross loves Mexican food but doesn’t eat meat, so she was thrilled to see vegetarian choices on the menu. She thinks Los Angeles is the perfect place to try out the idea.
“L.A. has one of those demographics that really care about health and appearance,” she said. “People really do look for the healthier option.”
But let’s face it, folks don’t often head for the lunch truck with health food in mind. Daniel Godwin, 45, says he can’t resist the bacon-wrapped hot dog. “I eat healthy at home,” he said.
Maria Eseo has high cholesterol and tries to watch what she eats. But not today. She ordered the beef combo plate with rice and beans. “It’s awesome,” she said.
Maybe next time, Eseo said, she will make a healthier choice. “At least they are offering them,” she said.
The lunch truck project was launched in Los Angeles County with a grant of $275,000 from the National Institutes of Health. RAND researchers recruited participants through an association of lunch-truck owners and by making cold calls to them. There are an estimated 2,580 licensed truck owners in Los Angeles County.
RAND sent out a nutritionist to help design new menu items and show the cooks how to prepare them. Researchers helped publicize the businesses through social media and brochures and promised to pay truck owners $250 for participating. At first, customers could purchase the healthier meals at a discount.