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Healthy Food Truck Panel Credit: Yolanda Chen , Sam Sherman

Healthy usually doesn’t describe food trucks.

Yet the masterminds behind local food trucks Chez Yasmine and Schmear It convened last night to discuss the challenges and rewards of serving healthy fast food.

The Healthy Food Truck Panel was held in Huntsman Hall and drew in nearly 75 students. College and Wharton junior Robert Hsu and Wharton sophomore Jessica Chen organized the panel as part of the Healthy Food Truck Initiative, an organization that they co-founded. The two food trucks, along with Magic Carpet, have been working with Philadelphia Healthy Food Initiative to offer and advertise healthier options since fall.

Over the past year, HFT has fostered relationships with Chez Yasmine’s owner Jihed Chehimi and Schmear It’s owner Dave Fine, a 2011 College graduate. HFT does not have specific criteria for the food trucks that they partner with, but according to Chen, “We do all the reaching out. We have an idea of which food trucks are healthy.” 

Before Chehimi opened Chez Yasmine, he worked in a research lab and enjoyed lunch from food trucks for 20 years. His familiarity with food trucks inspired him to take a different approach.

“Healthy, clean and different. I didn’t want to sell hot dogs,” Chehimi said.

Chehimi offers a Swedish Berry Salad, which earns its finishing flair from fresh mint and rose water. He also serves quinoa, a grain that is “the best you  can eat in terms of health.”

When Chipotle and Sweetgreen became successful on Penn’s campus, Schmear It's Fine noticed that people were willing to pay more for quality food. Fine saw that a niche for Schmear It and envisioned it as part of Penn’s array of food trucks. However, both Chehimi and Fine admit that the biggest challenge is balancing cost with fresh, healthy ingredients.

“I think when you’re trying to offer healthy options, they are more expensive. Sometimes they are reflected in the prices, but [the customers] recognize it as a special offering they can’t get elsewhere,” Fine said.

Schmear It offers vegan cream cheese, a “veggie delight schmear” and Greek yogurt cream cheese, but the cream cheese is not the only ingredient that can get a healthy makeover. Customers can request that bagels be scooped out — having the bulk of the dough removed to reduce calories while maintaining the shell, as well as the idea, of eating a bagel. 

Fine said that the option to scoop out a bagel is “polarizing, like to toast or not to toast.”

The Healthy Food Truck Initiative, which is Penn-affiliated through Campus Health Initiatives, was launched by Hsu and Chen last March. The panel was the first campus event for HFT, which collaborated with MUSE and Phi Gamma Nu and received funding from the Social Impact Advisory Board of Wharton Social Impact Initiative. The event was to feature Magic Carpet as well, but the owner was unable to attend.

According to Ashlee Halbritter, Health Educator of Campus Health Initiatives, Hsu was volunteering with Campus Health when he developed the idea to improve eating habits by targeting local food trucks.

“Robert really took an idea to an actual thing. He started out doing surveys on his own and figuring out how often Penn students eat at food trucks,” Halbritter said.

Hsu then presented data to the truck owners. Respondents’ top three suggestions for healthy eating at food trucks were healthier meals and options, displayed nutritional information and cleanliness. Three-quarters of survey respondents stated that they would perceive a food truck more favorably if nutritional information was posted.

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