Long-haul trucker Sam Ellestad has two choices for meals when pulling oversized loads through Kansas and other parts of the country. “You have horrible food and OK food,” he says. “Most of the time you end up eating out of a vending machine.”
That’s during normal times. Options are even more limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, as truck stop chains like Pilot Flying J and Love’s close their seating areas and reduce operating hours in compliance with social distancing rules.
Ellestad, part-owner of a Montana-based family business, often skips the truck stops anyway due to limited parking and monotonous menus. “It’s the same fast food restaurants everywhere you go,” he says.
Food trucks like B.S. Sandwich Press in Wichita could spice things up at nearly 60 highway rest areas across Kansas. “We pride ourselves on serving unique sandwiches that you can’t get anywhere else,” co-owner Jodie Buchanan says. “And we would consider it a civic duty to help the truckers who are keeping the country running during this difficult time.”
Instead of surviving on prepackaged snacks, Ellestad and other truckers could enjoy spicy fried pickles, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches or the Raspby Bird Panini —made to order with raspberry-jalapeno cream cheese, organic greens, red onion and mesquite-smoked turkey on a French bread hoagie brushed in olive oil. “We put it on a grill press and serve it hot and toasty,” Buchanan says.
Try getting that from a vending machine. Unfortunately, Gov. Laura Kelly won’t let Kansas food trucks anywhere near highway rest areas. Federal policy normally blocks mobile restaurants at these locations, creating government-imposed monopolies for vending machine companies. But the Federal Highway Administration has lifted the prohibition on hot, delicious meals during COVID-19.
Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia responded by issuing special permits. Kelly’s answer has been: “Let them eat Cheetos.”
Despite letters urging reform from the Kansas Policy Institute and the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that has litigated on behalf of food truck owners nationwide, the Kansas Department of Transportation has refused to budge.
Buchanan calls the delay a missed opportunity for Kansas, a hard-to-miss state for drivers traveling north, south, east or west. “It would be a situation that would be mutually beneficial for truckers and small business owners during a period of high unemployment,” she says.
Already, Wichita food truck owners have shown their willingness to help during the global crisis. Partnering with Telehue Food, several food truck owners have served free meals to displaced workers in the community.
If we’re all in this together, as the slogan suggests, the goal should be getting hot, fresh food to truck drivers. But the powerful lobby wants to keep mobile restaurants only at rest areas that are not a competitive threat to its members. The lobby also wants to resume banning food trucks altogether once the pandemic ends.
Such objections are short-sighted and counterproductive. U.S. cities need essential supplies that only truckers can deliver, and truckers need healthy food to make their jobs easier.
Rather than letting truckers eat Cheetos, Oreos or Skittles, the state could get out of the way and let them have hot gourmet meals.
Jessica Gandy is legislative counsel and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.