Echo Lau drove to Whitney High School on a recent Monday evening to pick up her kids. She left with dinner.
The student parking lot at the Cerritos campus is transformed every week into a congested food truck stop as eight mobile eateries attract the business of loyal followers, parents and students.
But this isn’t a typical stop for these catering trucks; this is a school fundraiser, in which a portion of the proceeds go directly to Whitney to help pay for a new multi-media center.
Outdoor food courts are popping up in the parking lots of at least a dozen high schools across Southern California with more on the way. Financially strapped public schools — hit hard by budget cuts, new fundraising guidelines, and fewer donors — have found a way to capitalize on the food truck craze.
Schools typically earn up to $50 per food truck nightly. It’s small change that quickly adds up, said Bryan Glonchak, assistant principal at Whitney. Since school opened, Whitney has made a total of $2,000 on the fund-raiser.
In most cases, schools host weekly food truck events, in which up to 10 vendors gather at dinnertime. Facebook and Twitter help spread the word.
The money is then used to fund scholarships, pay for equipment and school projects.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the state for allowing school districts to charge students for books, uniforms and other basic supplies. A settlement agreement established protections against the fees but it also mandated that schools can no longer require students to fundraise.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill two weeks ago that would have created a law based on the settlement; the ACLU has refiled the case.
Prior to the December settlement, some schools had not only required student fundraising but set quotas for those who participated in extracurricular activities.
At Fullerton Union High School, football players had to come up with $300 through fundraising and parents’ contributions. But in May, the assistant principal told faculty members they could no longer ask for students’ time or money.
Since then, Fullerton has hosted its own food truck fundraiser to make up the difference. But the Orange County school put its own spin on the event.
On a recent Saturday, 22 food trucks circled the football field under high-voltage floodlights as music blared in the speakers that normally carry the voices of sports announcers. More than 1,000 residents, students and food truck followers sat on the field on blankets, in lawn chairs and around folded dinner tables.
Fullerton hosts events like this every six weeks. Instead of charging the food trucks a set fee, the school asks the owners to donate what they want. The school receives about $100 to $150 per truck.
So far Fullerton has held four fundraisers and raised $13,000 — more than half the cost of uniforms for the varsity football team.
Cerritos High School has raised $3,000 since it held its first food truck fundraiser on a Thursday night in July. The money collected goes to the athletic program, and helps pay for field equipment and transportation to the games.
At Taft High School in Woodland Hills, the proceeds from the food trucks go toward college scholarships. Last year, a number of seniors received awards with the $5,000 raised at the events. In the past, community sponsors and alumni donated the money, but as the economy weakened, Taft noticed a decrease in charitable giving.
Other schools hope to host similar fundraisers, said Christian Murcia, the owner of the Crepes Bonaparte food truck. Murcia, the liaison between the schools and the catering trucks, said he receives calls weekly asking him to host a food truck night. He adds the schools’ names to a growing list.
He wants to make sure he doesn’t overextend his team or oversaturate the market. But he does acknowledge the benefits of being partners with high schools.
“Brick and mortar restaurants and shopping centers don’t want us parking on the streets stealing business away from them,” Murcia said. “This keeps us out of trouble and allows us give back to the community.”
Justin Moore-Brown, who works at Chunk-n-Chip Cookies, a food truck where customers design their own ice cream sandwiches, said: “It’s a win-win situation for us both. There is a profit sharing system among the trucks, and the high schools come with an automatic base of kids and families.”
At Whitney High School, as night crept over the parking lot, customers swarmed closer under the lights of the food trucks.
Behind the Ragin Cajun truck, Paul Reyes of Anaheim, still dressed in blue hospital scrubs, turned the trunk of his Subaru sedan into a makeshift dinner table. The 26-year-old respiratory therapist had just ended a 12-hour shift at Long Beach Memorial Hospital, but still made the hour and a half drive to Whitney for a Korean barbecue roll from Let’s Roll It.
Reyes convinced his relatives to meet him at the food truck stop. After he finished his first round, he took the last $29 out of his pockets and headed back to his favorite truck. To Reyes, it’s money well spent.
For the Lau family, the trucks are a weekly tradition that they’ve only missed once.
“I don’t need to cook today” or any other Monday night, said Lau, a 47-year old Norwalk resident, in between bites of a twisted potato-on-a-stick from Tornado Potato. “And [this event] is supporting the school.”