Daphne Keiser, Strategic Planning Officer at Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, shows off the school bus that CATEC students will transform into a food truck. Credit: Credit: Kayli Wren, Charlottesville Tomorrow

An old school bus is set to be transformed and used as a food truck by students at Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, allowing students to practice their craft, run a business and engage with the community.

Students from the Building Trades and Automotive programs are scheduled to complete the construction by January, installing a full kitchen, lighting fixtures and flooring in the bus that the Albemarle County Public Schools Department of Transportation donated.

By the spring semester, culinary students will begin using the food truck as a roaming classroom and business to sell butternut squash soup, hamburgers, fish tacos and more.

“This is really project-based learning at its best,” said Daphne Keiser, strategic planning officer at CATEC. “It’s going to be all of our program areas working together on this one project and getting it off the ground.”

Whether it’s information technology students deciding how to process orders efficiently or students from the Healthcare and Medical Services academy ensuring the menu is nutritious, all of CATEC’s students will have a hand in designing and executing the bus project.

The food truck will give students the opportunity to work collaboratively and practice entrepreneurship and hone business management skills, according to Patrick Maranuk, culinary arts instructor at CATEC.

“If we give a budget of $300, they have to figure out how $300 is going to pay for the food, the propane to run the truck, plus the diesel to run the vehicle to these events,” Maranuk said.

CATEC is currently raising funds for the project, which a food truck fabricator has projected will cost $50,000, according to Keiser. CATEC received a $5,000 grant from the Shannon Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, has applied for a Lowe’s SkillsUSA grant and is reaching out to other potential sponsors.

Ben Humphrey, a graduate of CATEC who came up with the food truck idea when he was a student, said he hopes culinary students are able to learn from working in the food truck.

“A lot of people, when they’re in high school, don’t really understand the amount of pressure in the food industry that comes from high-volume orders. I think that would be an excellent thing for them to see in a laid-back learning environment,” Humphrey said.

In addition to a learning experience for the students, the project will serve as a marketing tool, helping CATEC to be more visible in the community.

“I don’t think people are aware enough of the programs [at CATEC],” Humphrey said.

Maranuk said that for many mid-level career opportunities, people need the career and technical education that CATEC offers, and not necessarily a college education.

After working in the food industry for three years, Humphrey agrees.

“The conclusion that I came to is if you’re going to go into the food industry … college can be a necessary evil if you can afford it, absolutely. But it’s not 100 percent needed,” Humphrey said.

Keiser said that career and technical education benefits the local and state economy by preparing students for middle-skills jobs.

“Having a trade gives you more options,” Keiser added, whether or not someone goes to college.

“We wanted to have more of a connection in the community and have people understand what we do here at CATEC,” Keiser said.

In addition to spreading the word about CATEC, the food truck will involve the community by partnering with local farms and vendors, such as Carter’s Mountain Orchard and Charlottesville City Market.

“The vision is basically to stay local and do a farm-to-table initiative,” Maranuk said.

“We would like to really focus on nutrition,” Maranuk added. “So things like using spaghetti squash instead of whole-wheat or regular noodles, with some farm-raised chicken or grass-fed beef, and create dishes around that.”

At high school sporting events, Maranuk said, the bus could offer traditional tailgate food such as chicken wings, hamburgers, cheese platters and other finger foods.

“I would really like to see it become almost a tradition for a school having a football game or something,” Humphrey said.

Maranuk pictures selling to faculty and students at local high schools during the school day, and potentially setting up in local business communities like the Fontaine Research Park on other days.

Menus for events will be designed by the students themselves, Maranuk said.

CATEC currently has two vehicles for catering, but Maranuk said getting students, equipment and food to and from events is currently very challenging.

“With this food bus, that’s allowing us to basically have a rolling kitchen to allow us to transport students, as well as the food and equipment, to the venues,” Maranuk said.

Maranuk is also looking to partner with Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army and the local food bank in order to offer a hot meal once or twice a month to those in need, or collect turkeys, canned food and non-perishable items to make baskets for families around Thanksgiving.

“We could see how our bus could fit into the community, and not only raise awareness about what we do here at CATEC, but also the students would feel like they are giving back to their community,” Keiser said.