New York’s eco-friendly food carts: The next generation of street vending?

In a pilot program, some 500 eco-friendly food carts will be provided to New York City street vendors. The initiative reflects how restaurants and food companies are responding to consumer demand for sustainable, higher quality options. 

MOVE Systems/Courtesy/File
In this April 28 photo, customers eat at a standard MRV100 food cart in Long Island City, New York.

The future of the food truck business may be starting in New York City.

In an initiative to be announced Monday, mobile food industry startup MOVE Systems, in partnership with the City Council, will be providing 500 eco-friendly food carts to vendors across the Big Apple, The Wall Street Journal reported. The pilot program reflects a broader movement in the food business as restaurants and other suppliers turn to technology and innovative ingredients in response to consumer demand for environmentally-sound alternatives.

More than 80 percent of Americans consider sustainability when buying food and want to see more options that protect the environment, according to the latest food trend report by Boston-based marketing firm Cone Communications. More than 90 percent consider food safety when choosing products to buy, and nearly 70 percent look at sustainable packaging, the report found.

“Although consumers are shopping with an eye toward sustainability, they are equally motivated by personal needs and a desire to improve society,” Liz Gorman, Cone’s senior vice president for sustainable business practices, said in the report. “Companies must clearly demonstrate the impact consumers’ purchases are having on the environment, while reinforcing health, taste and quality attributes.”

As a result, the food industry is on the cusp of transformation, with everything from egg-free mayonnaise to smart shopping tools. Restaurants have also begun to go green, with even giants such as McDonald’s promising higher quality, eco-friendly options.

In fact, among the defining trends in the restaurant industry for the next few years will be natural and organic foods, transparency around food origins, and technologies that conserve energy and reduce waste, according to industry news site Fast Casual.

The food trucks and carts that have become ubiquitous in big cities across the United States are no exception. New York City alone issues up to 2,800 city-wide, full-year permits to vendors annually, along with 1,000 seasonal permits, 1,000 vegetable- and food-cart permits, and 200 neighborhood-specific permits — and most have long waiting lists, The Wall Street Journal reported.

About 60 percent of those carts use gasoline or diesel generators to heat and cook food, according to an Energy Vision report that compared the typical food truck to the MRV100 food cart designed by MOVE Systems.

These generators produce nitrous oxide, particulate matter, and greenhouse gas emissions; while propane, also used in cooking and heating, produces carbon monoxide, the report found. Leaks and explosions have also made the tanks a public safety concern. In addition, the generators are inefficient, converting only 10 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline into electricity.

The MRV100 food cart could be the solution. According to the Energy Vision report:

The cart comes equipped with a first-of-its-kind hybrid compressed natural gas (CNG) generator that supplies all energy and cooking needs, a solar panel to provide supplemental power, as well as the capability to plug in directly to the electric grid.

By using a hybrid generator, this new cart is also able to effectively power refrigeration and ventilation systems, vastly improving safety, reducing the risk of food contamination and minimizing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Each cart measures about 5 feet wide, 10 feet long, and 8 feet high, and is modeled after a stationary kitchen, complete with refrigeration and sinks. While the report recommends more analysis of the carts’ efficiency, it concludes that the MRV100 “is an important step forward… [and] will also provide opportunities for further innovation toward a fully sustainable, zero-emissions mobile food industry in NYC and beyond.”

As part of the pilot program, MOVE Systems is giving the carts for free to the first 500 vendors to volunteer to switch to the new model. The company is also reserving 100 of the new carts for disabled veterans, the Journal reported.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito praised the pilot program in a statement, saying, “Small business owners like food cart vendors are the backbone of New York City’s economy and the fabric of our neighborhoods. I look forward to seeing the results of this pilot."

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