Vendors asked to make healthy menus

By June Q. Wu
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2010

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It’s like “Top Chef,’’ but with food trucks.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is inviting vendors to compete in Boston’s inaugural summer Food Truck Challenge — the latest city effort to promote healthy eating.

Three contestants will be selected in the fall for their healthy menus and creative business plans, and the winning food trucks will snag a coveted spot on City Hall Plaza starting next spring, as well as financial support from the city.

The inspiration for the food truck face-off? Menino’s unwitting purchase of a soy bacon sandwich at a local truck.

“I went down to the farmers market at South Station, saw a food truck, purchased a BLT — I love bacon, right?’’ Menino recounted. “I didn’t know it was soy bacon. I ate it, and I thought, ‘Gee, this is really good.’ ’’

Supporting businesses that provide healthy food on the go, Menino said, will help residents and visitors eat better during the summer months, when fried food stands and ice-cold soda are daily temptations.

“It’s good for us with high blood pressure, cholesterol problems,’’ Menino said, adding that he has not had a soda since last December. “That’s our goal, we’re going to try to educate the public on why it is smarter to eat healthier.’’

The Food Truck Challenge is part of the city’s three-pronged approach to fighting obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle — expand access to fresh fruits and produce; limit the availability of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks; and encourage more physical activity.

Menino added that the city may also consider a new ordinance requiring restaurants to offer healthy alternatives to the chicken fingers and hot dogs that typically dominate children’s menus.

Beyond restaurants, Boston’s lower-income neighborhoods have long struggled with access to affordable healthy foods.

“Quite frankly, junk foods are cheaper, and that’s a big problem in people making the choices that they do,’’ said Anne McHugh, director of chronic disease prevention and control at the Boston Public Health Commission.

Obesity rates are highest in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, McHugh said, and the city has shifted its focus to these neighborhoods with programs such as farm stands and local gardens. The city’s efforts in recent years to bring farmers markets to more communities have resulted in increased consumption of local fresh foods, McHugh said.

Purchases under the Boston Bounty Bucks program — which offers residents enrolled in the federal food stamp program up to $10 in credit when they buy foods from local farmers markets — have increased from $2,000 in 2008 to $20,000 last year, said Cammy Watts, director of community programs at the Food Project, which cosponsors Bounty Bucks with the city.

The Food Truck Challenge will start accepting applications in August, and a panel of judges will review the proposals, said Julie Burns, the city’s director of arts, tourism, and special events. To date, the city has not given food trucks seasonal permits to operate on City Hall Plaza.

Though the criteria the judges will use to evaluate applications has not been finalized, Burns said that the city will be looking for creative ideas to get Boston eating healthier.

“We have no restrictions — it’s really an ideas competition,’’ she said. “The sky is the limit.’’

June Wu can be reached at

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