The DJEats Food Truck Brings Hip, Wholesome Cuisine to Davis High Students

When you think of where you might find a food truck, you likely imagine a progressive urban setting with a thriving cultural scene. Maybe music is playing and young people are gathered and perusing the truck’s menu board, hoping to expand their palates with an exotic dish they haven’t tried before. If you can picture this scene, you’ve got a good idea of what it’s like to have lunch at Davis Senior High School in Davis, Calif.

The DJEats Food Truck is the brainchild of Dominic Machi, director of Student Nutrition Services at Davis Joint (the DJ in DJEats) Unified School District. The project was born out of necessity when Davis High’s kitchen needed to be demolished as part of a renovation project and Machi needed a temporary means of serving students lunch. The truck has been a big success, maintaining the school’s lunch program participation and driving community engagement. We reached out to Machi to discuss the food truck and how it’s changing the Davis community’s perception of school lunch.

KaTom: Tell us how the DJEats Food Truck came into being.

Dominic Machi: At Davis Senior High School, where the food truck is presently dedicated, we had to demolish the multipurpose room at the high school for a new project. We’re building what we call an All Student Center that is comprised of a facility that will have a brand new kitchen that I designed – state of the art for school foodservice and K-12, especially here in California where we’ll be putting food on a plate.

Because of the construction project that brought the building down, we didn’t have a food access point for our students. Instead of purchasing or leasing a portable building of some type, we thought that a food truck is a good investment because if you put in the funds to a portable unit, once the project’s done, it goes away. This food truck is something that we own and something that we can use in the program after the project has been completed. So that was really the purpose of the food truck. I’ve been on many projects where portable buildings are just not that inviting. The food truck is definitely something the students are attracted to.

So I designed the kitchen inside the food truck. It’s very expensive to have food trucks built from the chassis up, so we went through a vendor that was using either old UPS or Aramark linen trucks. This was an Aramark linen truck. They basically gut the insides, cut out the windows as needed, and basically redesign a food truck out of this previous linen truck. We put in a range with an oven and six burners, a charbroiler, and a flat grill. We put in some steam wells, refrigeration, and a 3-compartment sink. We included everything that was required here by Yolo County Environmental Health Department.

The biggest thing that we put in is a point-of-sale system in each window. We are a participant in the National School Lunch Program, and we want to make sure that all students are able to have access to the food truck – our free, reduced, and paid students, so there is no segregation of our students. So a free student can come up and get something to eat, no problem. Again, we have in no way segregated or discriminated against any of our students. They all get to enjoy it.

The cool thing about it is that we put big outdoor speakers on it so we can pump music through it. We also had it wrapped it with cool, Instagram-ready hashtags all over and it call it DJEats.

K: I read that in the past, you’d had trouble getting students to stay on campus and participate in the lunch program. Is that still the case?

DM: Davis High is an open campus, and that’s still the case. By bringing in the food truck, we didn’t lose participation, let’s put it that way. Participation stayed steady as before, where previously we had a traditional facility, a traditional kitchen, so we really didn’t lose participation that much. The school site being an open campus makes it very challenging for us.

K: How did you design the menu that you serve from the food truck?

DM: When I designed the menu, I wanted the students to get as close to the food truck experience as possible and still meet the requirements of the National School Lunch Program. Everything in the truck is 100 percent scratch- or house-made by my staff, so the attraction is that students can actually see my staff working in the food truck.

Some of the things that we make: we charbroil hamburgers in there, we make street tacos, we make steak sandwiches, and we have homemade burritos going out. There’s a recipe that I developed for fried chicken that we put over mashed potatoes and gravy. Everything in there is basically scratch cooked. We were even doing banh mi hot dogs there at one time when we first started.

The point is, we wanted to not give students the school food perception. We wanted to give them more a perception that they’d get if they went to a food truck on U.C. Davis’s Campus. We wanted it so that if they were somewhere in the Sacramento Valley and they stopped and saw a food truck, they’d get that same experience.

K: How have you tried to incorporate the truck into the Davis community as a whole?

DM: Davis, because of the university, is a college town, so we have many academics professors here. Many members of the community are either graduates of U.C. Davis or attracted to Davis because of the university.

We have what is called the Davis Farm to School program, which is here to help support our school lunch program. We have the RISE program, and all of the students are taught during the school lunch period to recycle, so we have recycle stations at each of our school sites, especially in our elementary schools.

We also have school gardens in all of our schools, in our elementary schools especially, and definitely in our junior high schools where they learn more about science, but our elementary schools learn more about gardens and how things are grown. Then the other focus is child nutrition or the school foodservice program.

Part of our mutual agreement with the Farm to School program is that they would like for us to locally source a lot of the food that comes into our program, so we purchase about 55 to 60 percent of our produce from within a 300-mile radius of Davis. All of that is incorporated into the food truck, also. We have many of our bread vendors come within that 300-mile radius. We’re working on protein, so we’re very fortunate to have Foster Farms very close to us.

The community really wants us to focus more on scratch-made food. They want higher quality, so when they see the food truck, they have a perception of higher quality compared to typical school food because we’re one of few school districts in the state of California that has a food truck.

K: What happens to the food truck when you get your new facility up and running?

DM: So, one of the challenges that I have is that everybody wants to have the food truck! There are many other food sites that are very disgruntled that they don’t get to have the food truck. Our new facility should be completed by January 2018. We’ve been working with Yolo County Environmental Health, and one of the things that we have to submit to them is a schedule, so we’ve planned for the truck to be utilized in junior high schools. It will be utilized in elementary schools for special events. We could use it for other catered events in the community. It’s going to be fully utilized in other school sites besides just the high school. It might still be at the high school once a week, but it will be in other locations throughout the district so it’s fully utilized.

K: Do you think that other school districts around the country could adopt a similar approach with a food truck?

DM: Absolutely. We’ve proven that it can be done. The biggest thing was the point of sale system. Because under USDA rules, we have to identify every student that comes and has a meal with us. Because we have that capability with the point of sale system, then the rest is just our normal best practices of a food operation.

If you have any school district that’s doing any type of cooking in their schools, they can do that in the food truck. The biggest challenge for some school districts will be having a central kitchen. The food truck has to have a connection to some type of commissary kitchen. It needs to be housed at a location that will be able to keep all the food safe, keeping everything at the right temperature and making sure food safety is in place. They could run it out of a high school kitchen.

As long as you have that, I don’t see any reason why not. It’s just a new concept that many haven’t gotten their heads wrapped around yet or they haven’t been exposed to see how you could actually build one. It’s a bit of challenge up front, but not really. I designed DJEats. I knew what I wanted, but you do learn through the process. Again, I wish I had another 10 of them. I think they’re the new, cutting-edge way to feed students because by lunch, students have been in a classroom already for four hours in some cases – three to four hours. So really they want to get outside and get food at an access point that’s outside. I think that’s really attractive to students, versus the traditional, big facility of a commons or a multipurpose room.

I just think that food truck gives the students a different experience. One of the things I connect the food truck to is one of the things we’re focused on here in California – and it’s beginning to grow more and more: the social and emotional learning model for students, meaning that it will help support their academic excellence. Food is definitely in that arena of the social-emotional learning model. So the students go to the food truck and they have a great experience. They get their lunch and it’s not the typical school food – there’s no mystery meat. They know what’s in it and they appreciate it. That’s going to give them a positive experience to go back into the classroom and finish out the rest of the day – so it helps support their academic achievement.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.