Lunch is always a surprise at Truck 54, whether it’s a pear fall salad or homemade butternut squash-parsnip soup. Oohs and aahs usually accompany the customer’s first glance at a colorful stir-fry, or ginger-carrot soup, as a proud server offers the midday treat out of the food truck window.
Individuals recovering from serious mental illness staff the mobile restaurant, which has been visiting organizations and businesses around town since July 2014. Driven by its motto of “Fresh Food. Fresh Start.” Truck 54 is based out of Café 54 at 54 E. Pennington St. and serves bistro cuisine that changes with the seasons.
“We have the Cadillac of food trucks,” says Diana Figueroa, Truck 54 program manager. When she heard that Pima Community College wanted a consistent food truck presence at its various campuses, Figueroa and her staff jumped at the opportunity.
Truck 54 operates under the umbrella of the Coyote Task Force, which includes Café 54, Our Place Clubhouse, a center for psychological and social rehabilitation, and the Re-Threads Shop, all housed in the same building. OPC members, who must be enrolled in Tucson’s behavioral health system, train first in food preparation and waiting tables at the brick and mortar café prior to working on the food truck.
Bruce Bowden, Café 54’s executive chef, prepares the truck’s mostly local organic meat and vegetarian options, made from scratch daily in the Café 54 kitchen.
At PCC, “A lot of students come up to the truck and say, ‘This is fantastic. This is such a great idea,’” says Figueroa.
For OPC members involved in food preparation, the possibility of a regular restaurant job is even a greater idea. During their three-month rotation, two trainees serve up everything from fish tacos to grilled cheese, green chile sandwiches to spinach salads, and interact with the public, which builds confidence and self-esteem. “Everyone at Café 54 wants to work on the food truck,” says Figueroa.
“When I met Janice [Washington] at Café 54 almost a year ago, this woman was hardened,” she says. “Janice took everything personally. She became a completely different woman when she started working on the truck. I would say, ‘Do your job. Don’t worry about the little things. You need to develop coping skills in the community.’ And she did. I’m so proud of her. She’s a work of art.”
“People with mental illness are more than their illness,” says Laura Dow, Truck 54’s kitchen manager and job coach.
Washington, 46, smiles, and says of Figueroa and Dow, “These two ladies are my guardian angels. If I fall down, they help me get up and try again. I don’t feel judged.”
PCC students or instructors looking for a good lunch receive more than just food, says Figueroa, who often steps off the truck to talk and hand out informational brochures. “It’s all about ending the stigma of mental illness. It’s my job to educate people,” she says.
Sometimes she talks with someone who came to the truck for a meal but ended up having an epiphany. “They start sharing about a brother or sister who committed suicide,” she says, “or someone they knew who struggled with mental illness. It makes them more comfortable telling their stories.”
The chocolate chip cookies sitting in a basket at the truck pick-up window help, too.
Sheila Wilensky is a freelance writer and editor living in Tucson.