of the healthy meals served from the luch truck El
Prescadito Tacos y Mariscos in Los Angeles. The lunch
truck is working with Rand Corp. to dish up healthier
meals for customers.
ANGELES — Guillermina Villa is famous for the seafood she
prepares at El Pescadito Tacos y Mariscos, a lunch truck that
has been serving customers for more than 25 years in South
L.A.’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood.
who grew up in the largely industrial area travel great
distances — from as far as North Hollywood, Rancho Cucamonga
and Oxnard — to treat themselves to favorites like shrimp
tacos and empanadas.
these days a new sign on Villa’s truck advertises a
smattering of new menu items such as quesadillas made with
whole wheat tortillas and ceviche served with a side of plain
yogurt and fruit.
offerings represent a new direction for the business: They’re
designed to provide healthy balanced meals of less than 700
calories apiece, loaded up with whole grains, fruits and
vegetables and carefully calibrated portions of meat and
concerned about what people are eating," said Alfredo
Magallanes, Villa’s husband and co-owner of the truck.
"That’s why we’re doing this."
family’s effort is part of a collaboration with Dr. Deborah
Cohen, a researcher at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica who
studies causes of obesity. With funding from the National
Institutes of Health, she has launched a pilot program to see
what might happen if taco trucks start offering healthier
meals to their customers.
operators volunteer to participate in the effort, which offers
them help creating and marketing their healthy offerings and
pays them $250 once they complete the requirements for study
family medicine doctor by training, began working with
loncheras — the traditional taco trucks that have been a
staple in Los Angeles for decades — because they serve a
high-risk population, she said.
estimates that several thousand loncheras operate in Los
Angeles County. Many of their customers are Latinos and
lower-income people, groups that suffer disproportionately
from obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes
and heart disease. According to the 2011 Los Angeles County
Health Survey, 31 percent of Latinos and 30 percent of people
with incomes below the federal poverty level are obese.
thinks getting trucks to sell healthier fare could help reduce
those numbers — if customers buy the better meals.
we’re able to get the trucks to successfully promote
healthier meals, we could have a substantial, measurable
health impact," she said.
evening of Nov. 19, registered dietitian Monica Montes, who is
part of Cohen’s team, visited El Palador Oaxaqueno, a
night-hours truck that has operated for 10 years, seven of
them in West Los Angeles.
was there to help owners Doroteo and Victoria Lopez devise
their new, balanced dishes. Handing the couple a set of
measuring cups and a brand-new food scale, she asked them to
prepare some candidate dishes — showing them how to measure
the ingredients as they went along. Montes would later take
the plates with her to analyze their nutritional content and
finalize working recipes.
Doroteo Lopez painstakingly prepared reimagined versions of
beef with nopales and chicken, beef and pork tacos, weighing
avocado slices and measuring out citrus wedges, a long line of
patrons snaked from the truck’s service window. It was a
chilly night, and most ordered comfort food — tacos or
quesadillas served with piles of rice and beans, or
traditional Oaxacan clayudas stacked with bean spread, pork
hopes to have 20 trucks signed on by the end of the year. Once
all have completed their work with Montes and started selling
their revamped meals, it will be up to customers to make the
decision to give tidbits like yogurt, whole wheat tortillas
and fresh fruit garnishes a try.
program gives truck operators the option of handing out
coupons to customers who buy the new meals but urges
participants to avoid emphasizing the nutritional content of
Catering, a high-volume truck that operates daytime hours in
the Fashion district downtown, has had good success with its
four new offerings: a grilled fish salad, a grilled chicken
salad, and plates called El Pescado Incomparable and El Pollo
Majestuoso (which offer whole grain rice, fruit and vegetables
with fish and chicken, respectively).
Mario Lopez, who operates the truck with his wife, Adela, says
he sells 40 or 50 of the new plates every day.
Pescadito Tacos y Mariscos, sales of the healthy meals have
been slower-going, Alfredo Magallanes said, with customers
buying only about three or four a day.
are still getting to know the plates," he said.
"They come in for the traditional options."
said one reason he wanted to participate in Cohen’s program
was to dispel the popular notion that catering trucks only
homemade food," he said. "Everything we sell is
months, Rand researchers will track the success of the effort,
logging healthy meal sales and conducting customer surveys
with nonprofit community health organization AltaMed.
find that people are buying the healthier plates, they’ll
expand the project to study how the offerings have improved
customers’ diets, Cohen said.