Op-Ed: On Food Trucks, Don’t Let Bureaucracy Override our Commitment to Community

Feb. 4, 2013, 1:41 a.m.

Arranging catering used to be the worst part of my otherwise fantastic job as a fellow at the law school – until I met Chon Vo.

Chon has run his “Net Appetit” food truck at Stanford since 2001. Because his food was affordable and delicious, I started asking Chon to cater our events. Unlike many other caterers we’ve used, Chon was always a consummate professional, delivering fantastic food with incredible service. But because he is also modest and soft-spoken, it took me a year to discover that he’s also an entrepreneurial philanthropist. An MIT grad, Chon used the proceeds from Net Appetit to feed orphans in Vietnam.

So I am saddened and frustrated that the administration has expelled Chon from campus – not for any violation, but simply because the University has a new food truck policy and Net Appetit isn’t part of the new plan. As The Daily reported on Thursday, the University has contracted with a company called Off The Grid to issue permits for food trucks on campus. The administration notified Chon of this change just a week before the University closed for winter break. When Chon scrambled to apply to Off The Grid, the company told him all available food truck spots were already taken.

When Chon advised the administration of his plight, its response was essentially, “Thanks for your great contributions, but tough luck.” In rebuffing Chon’s appeal for help, Vice President for Business Affairs Randy Livingston acknowledged “the excellent food and quality service you have provided for many years through the Net Appetit food truck, and that you use much of the proceeds for charitable purposes.”

But Mr. Livingston assured Chon that “Stanford’s new program for food trucks was the result of several months of deliberation” and was “approved [by] the University President, with support from his senior management team.” The orphans may go hungry, but they can take solace in knowing the proper procedures were followed.

To put it mildly, this is not the way we should treat someone who has been a stalwart member of the Stanford community for more than a decade. Nor is the decision to cut off the flow of money to orphans in keeping with our mission “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity.” And on a personal level, Chon simply deserves better than to be ejected from campus without cause and with almost no notice.

It is particularly disturbing that the administration didn’t see fit to respond to The Daily’s request for an interview about its actions. If the University feels justified in ejecting a longtime community member and putting a charitable enterprise out of operation, it should jump at the opportunity to explain. It is hard to believe the University finds these circumstances so unimportant that they do not merit 10 minutes of an administrator’s time.

In an institution the size of Stanford, it is inevitable that some generally sensible policies will have negative unintended consequences for particular stakeholders. But when the administration learns that its actions are having such devastating effects, it is unacceptable to respond with the reliable standby of bureaucrats everywhere: “Sorry, that’s our policy.” In this case, that defense rings especially hollow, since the University has expressly reserved the right to change its food truck policy at any time, “in Stanford’s sole discretion.” In other words, there is simply no reason why the administration cannot allow Net Appetit back onto campus.

I applaud Stanford for experimenting with new ways to promote a variety of excellent food options on campus. But like any experiment, this one can only succeed if the administration is willing to learn from it. Let’s treat our community members with the respect they deserve and bring Net Appetit back to Stanford.

Matt Lamkin
Fellow, Stanford Law School

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