When Gene Hildreth of Hot Dogs with Heart moved back to Arizona to live near his grandchildren, he wasn’t ready to settle into his golden years like most older Americans.
“I’m not the retiring type,” Gene said, “I just got bored stiff.” About two years ago, he found himself sitting in Saddlebrook, Arizona — a retirement community north of Tucson — wondering how to stay active. Gene went on Craigslist and found a hot dog cart for sale. A self-described “foodie,” Gene discovered that operating a food cart was a lot of hard work, not the “casual business as people might think.” He started to wonder “Do I really want to be running the hot dog cart?”
Soon after, Gene heard the story of a young woman who had been helped by a Tucson group called Youth On Their Own, a school drop-out prevention program for homeless youth. Gene was not new to cause-related endeavors, having spent “seven to eight years” in the mid-90s raising money for charter schools. He knew what he had to do. He contacted YOTO and asked if any teens would be interested in working part-time at a food cart. His next call was to Our Family Services – which helps runaways and homeless youth get off the streets – and he proposed the same opportunity; young people could earn money working part-time while gaining valuable job skills. And so, Hot Dogs With Heart was born. The business now manages food carts at southern Arizona events while continuing to employ youth referred by community service agencies. Hot Dogs With Heart also donates a portion of its sales to these agencies.
Food trucks around North America have fast become a great way to launch or subsidize causes. From fundraising fairs with dozens of food trucks to individual food carts with a single purpose, mobile food operators are teaming up with various communities, schools and niche organizations to lend a helping hand. Many participating curbside cafes are established businesses that donate a percentage of sales to cash-strapped programs, while others are launched strictly for supporting a very specific underserved population.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Inc. (MLF), a nationwide program started in Austin,Texas in 1998, offers a food program for homeless and low income individuals. Its teams of local faith-based volunteers stock the trucks with hot and cold food, clothing and toiletries. Unlike your typical for-profit food truck, MLF has no menu per se, relying solely on the discretion of its community volunteers.
“Hot meals are based on individual churches or what they can provide,” shares Nancy Rockefeller, volunteer coordinator for Mobile Loaves & Fishes Rhode Island and an MLF board member. There’s no rest for the weary, either. MLF catering trucks hit the road every single night, feeding the hungry with sandwiches and fruit year-round. Currently, MLF has 19 trucks with operations in Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Providence, Rhode Island; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Over time, a charitable food truck program may evolve from its original concept, much like Cart For A Cause, a non-profit program of St. Vincent Meals on Wheels of Los Angeles. Food truck proceeds have helped offset the costs of delivering meals every day to thousands of homebound senior citizens.
“The Cart for a Cause is into another iteration now but with the same premise. We are currently doing Culinary Cause events, not necessarily with the cart,” reports Daryl T. Twerdahl, executive director of St. Vincent Meals on Wheels Foundation. By enlisting celebrity hosts, celebrity chefs and well-known corporate sponsors (e.g., Audi, Lexus, etc.), St. Vincent generates funding through pop-up culinary events like An Evening on the Beach.
Inspired? Well, just because you don’t personally own a food truck does not mean you’re not a part of the action. Whether your fave food truck fills a benevolent need, donates cash for a cause or operates solely for a non-profit’s benefit, you can do some good as well. Take your family to dinner at a fundraising food truck fair or volunteer with your local church, synagogue or mosque to help stock a charitable food cart for a day. You could even invent a new way to team with street food vendors to raise money or develop jobs for those in need. Finally, the next time your elected officials propose additional business fees or unfair restrictions on food trucks, tell them: Food trucks make a big difference in the quality of many people’s lives.
Need an idea for a cause-related food truck or food truck fundraiser in your city? Do you want to make a donation? Check out this list of “food trucks that give.”
Cart for a Cause
St. Vincent Meals on Wheels
Los Angeles, California
Cause: Proceeds help feed homebound senior citizens and educate the community on elder hunger
Cupcakes for Courage
Cause: Raises money for cancer research
Hot Dogs With Heart
Cause: Local events provide opportunities to mentor and employ youth; donates a portion of its proceeds to local agencies
Mobile Loaves and Fishes
Headquartered in Austin Texas (with food trucks in multiple cities)
Cause: Local church volunteers stock the trucks with food and clothing for homeless individuals
New Haven Food Truck
United Way of Greater New Haven
New Haven, Connecticut
Cause: Serves meals to low-income New Haven children and youth; offers a summer meals program
Rocco DiSpirito Now Eat This! Food Truck
New York, New York
Cause: Educates kids about healthy eating and cooking; donates 100% of its proceeds to feed hungry kids
Cause: Feeds the homeless at Next Step Homeless Shelter in Kakaako
Pi On The Spot
St. Louis, Missouri
Cause: Donates a large portion of truck sales to non-profits in its community
About Kim Bayne/ Street Food Files
Kim M. Bayne is a culinary enthusiast and writer/editor of Street Food Files, an online source for news and views on food truck fever. In her day job, she is a senior writer/editor for a software company, where she creates online help for financial software and related mobile apps. She is also a member of her employer’s social media customer care team. Kim lives in sunny Tucson, Arizona and loves to “hunt down” local gourmet food trucks at night and on weekends. You can follow Kim via Street Food Files: