Food truck offers free meals to students in need

The donor-funded effort is the first of its kind in the nation

By Julia Ann Easley | April 18, 2023

Sophomore Alexandra Sarimsakci took it all in, her face beaming: A food truck on her campus was offering meals for free or whatever students wanted to pay.

The international relations major was one of the first dozen students to be served during last week’s practice runs for the new AggieEats food truck — believed to be the first and only one in the nation to serve free meals on a college campus.

“This is perfect,” Sarimsakci said when her order of pasta with sauce and zucchini was ready. “I just don’t get time to cook, and I’ve been learning about budgeting this year.

“I have a spreadsheet where I input what I spend.” For lunch, it would be a low number.

AggieEats is a partnership of the Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center, Student Housing and Dining Services and the Division of Student Affairs, and part of comprehensive efforts to address food insecurity among students. The truck will serve up to 500 meals a day beginning at 11 a.m. weekdays when classes are held. Today (April 18) was the second day of full service.

Need among students

Photo of Alexandra Sarimsakci holding a tray of prepared food in front of the AggieEats food truck on campus.
Alexandra Sarimsakci, a second-year student, looks forward to the the pasta meal she ordered from the AggieEats food truck. (Julia Ann Easley/UC Davis)

In recent years, University of California surveys have found that nearly two in five UC Davis undergraduates and one in five graduate students experience low to very low food security, defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food. Among 195,000 respondents to a fall 2020 survey, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 39% of respondents at 130 two-year institutions and 29% of respondents at four-year institutions were affected by food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the survey.

Aggie Compass — continuing to be at the vanguard of meeting basic needs since it opened in the Memorial Union in June 2018 — provides a full complement of services to support housing and food security, including the distribution of free food. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Fruit and Veggie Up! offers produce. The center has partnered with The Pantry, a unit of the Associated Students of UC Davis, and the Yolo Food Bank to offer hundreds of pounds of food weekly as an Eat Well Yolo site. Aggie Compass also helps students apply for CalFresh assistance for groceries.

Why a food truck?

The food truck not only expands the availability of free food without the need for campus building space, but it also adds the option of a cooked meal to the fresh produce, groceries and other food assistance already available.

Pablo Reguerín, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said the campus hit on the idea of using the popular food truck model to help fight what can be the negative associations with seeking assistance.

“We’ve been wanting to have multiple options to address stigma,” he said. “I think this is going to be game-changing. It’s innovative.”

AggieEats is launching with support from an anonymous donor and campus funding.

How it works

An A-frame chalkboard with AggieEats menu and QR code.
AggieEats' daily menu includes a vegetarian option. (Julia Ann Easley/UC Davis)

Leslie Kemp, director of the UC Davis Basic Needs Initiative and Aggie Compass, said students don’t have to qualify in any way to get a meal. And using a smartphone to order, they can confidentially pay what they want. “We’re not going to turn anyone away, but we want to market it to those who may be most food insecure,” Kemp said, adding outreach would be directed toward student community resource centers and users of Aggie Compass and The Pantry.

The bright green truck, decorated with images of colorful fruits and vegetables, will rotate among four locations on campus: the East Quad, the Student Health and Wellness Center, Storer Hall and West Village. The itinerary is posted on the AggieEats website, and soon the menu, including vegetarian options, will be posted there, too. Will it be gaiyang chicken with steamed jasmine rice and broccoli or pulled pork with chipotle pinto beans and cilantro rice?

The food served through AggieEats is prepared fresh in Dining Services’ Culinary Support Center on campus, and the team finishes the preparation and assembles the dishes in the truck kitchen, which uses solar and battery power.

Kemp said Dining Services is the ideal partner for this project. “They provide high quality food, they're located on campus and they can handle large quantities,” she added. “We're really excited to be partnering with Student Housing and Dining Services and their excellent chefs.”

Jesus "Sal" Ramirez, food truck coordinator for AggieEats serves food in the kitchen of the food truck.
Jesus "Sal" Ramirez, food truck coordinator for AggieEats, dishes up food on the first day of full service Monday (April 17). (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Chef knew food insecurity

Putting good, healthy food in the bellies of students in need is personal for Jesus “Sal” Ramirez, hired in January as the food truck coordinator. He is an immigrant who experienced food insecurity as a child. After leaving high school early, he studied to earn a high school equivalency certificate. Ramirez began in kitchens as a dishwasher and — with more than two decades of experience in restaurants, catering, private service and corporate food service — became a chef in 2015.

“I’m excited to be able to start something so important and so new,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs out there, but jobs that can feed your soul, they’re rare.”

Bianca Tomat, a second-year student studying food science, serves two meals through the window of the AggieEats food truck.
Bianca Tomat, a second-year student studying food science, serves two meals through the window of the AggieEats food truck Monday (April 17), the first day of full service. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Students helping students

Sixteen students have been hired for the AggieEats team. In addition to serving the food, they will also help connect students to Aggie Compass, CalFresh assistance for groceries and other campus resources.

Ramirez said all will be trained in safe food handling before working on the truck, and at least some will get training and testing behind the wheel of the 24-foot truck.

Second-year student Bianca Tomat worked during the practice runs and also on the first day of full service. From Marseille, France, she came to UC Davis to study food science and learned about the opportunity on the job search platform for students. “I recognized immediately that it would be helping my peers,” she said.