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McDougle Middle School Students Explore Food Trucks and Social Justice

The enticing smells wafting from the elective hallway at McDougle Middle School (MMS) on Friday, December 14, stopped some people in their tracks. But few people knew that the aromas were part of a culminating celebration that started and ended with pupusas, the national culinary treasure from El Salvador. Students at MMS have spent the past few weeks learning about food truck design and marketing, global cuisines and a host of social justice issues, all wrapped into a unit celebrating the local nonprofit, Pupusas for Education, and its parent business, So Good Pupusas.

Cecilia Polanco at MMS The Food Trucks for Social Justice project explored the evolution and precocious success of Cecilia Polanco, a first-generation citizen whose family roots are in El Salvador. Polanco grew up in Durham, and she earned a Morehead-Cain scholarship to UNC where she graduated with honors in 2016. As its founder and CEO, she operates a food truck called So Good Pupusas with her parents. She has also created a non-profit called Pupusas for Education, which funds scholarships for undocumented high school students in the Triangle area. Polanco and her parents brought the food truck to MMS for a day of learning, cooking - and eating!

 The project took shape as a collaboration between two Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers, Debra Freeman (Exploring Nutrition and Wellness), and Redmond Grigg (Technology and Design). Freeman discovered So Good Pupusas earlier this year, and she began thinking about the many lessons embedded in running a food truck business; she was also drawn to the social justice elements that Polanco highlights through Pupusas for Education. Although this is the first time Freeman and Grigg have taught the project, it’s clear that the activities and inspiration have sealed it as one to revisit in the future.

Grigg noted that the students’ analysis of logistics and design components illuminated aspects like how to create efficient systems through layout and process. “Just hearing them talk about how they’ve set up the truck to utilize the space was helpful,” he said. For the design part of the project, students researched food truck examples and then produced their own models in small groups, using boxes decorated with photographs and illustrations.The requirements included a showcase of geographic and cultural facts, images, and the menus they developed in teams.  Many were able to design a floor plan for their food truck, which helped them think through scale, necessary equipment and work paths.

For the culinary, social justice and global studies aspects of the project, students learned about the countries represented by their mini-food trucks. Freeman said, “They located their country on a map and found an image of the country's flag, shared six interesting facts about their country, researched crops and food, and created a simple menu that might be used by a street vendor/food truck in that country. They found recipes for those foods and added them to their 'file' of research. Students also began to do a small plan for how they would present their food truck in order to market their product and help others understand some basic cultural aspects of the country they chose.” For the final stage of research, Freeman said, “Students were called to reach a little deeper into information about their country as they researched five social justice issues that are causing difficulty in their country.  They were asked to figure out which one they might choose to use a portion of their (imaginary) food truck profits to 'lend a hand up' to those who are marginalized and in need.”

MMS food truck project Freeman said that the entire process yielded exciting surprises. “Students who identify with cultures other than and alongside being 'American' took leadership roles and led others into greater understanding about where they or their parents are from. One young man led his group to choose Viet Nam (their food truck is named ‘Go With the Pho’!); one eighth grade student connected us to her roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to her grandmother's passionate work of opening a school to empower young women; another girl wanted to work with her South Korean mother as her 'group partner.'”  

During combined classes on December 14, students listened to Polanco describe her life journey so far. She is the only member of her family who was born in the United States, and she spoke of her parents’ choice to leave El Salvador. “They would have stayed, but it had become a matter of life or death,” she said. The family first lived in California, but moved to North Carolina when Cecilia was only a year old. Attending middle and high schools in Durham, she was troubled by the fact that she was the only Latino student in the advanced track of classes she took. “I began to ask why I was the only one on my team in middle school.” After graduating from high school, she won a Global Gap Year scholarship through the UNC Campus Y, before beginning her studies as a Morehead-Cain Scholar. Soon her earlier ambition to become a doctor was replaced by the choice to major in global studies, with a minor in geography and a certificate in business essentials from Kenan-Flagler School of Business.

“I continued to reflect on my heritage, and I spent more time thinking about the many young people who don’t have the same opportunities I had.” The vision for Pupusas for Education arose from those reflections. “We’re always on a journey-- to be successful, and to learn who we are,” she told the students.

MMS food truck presentations Following Polanco’s remarks, the groups of students presented their miniature food trucks with accompanying research. After the presentations, Polanco served dozens of pupusas to the hungry and appreciative students. What a multi-layered and satisfying learning experience for the CTE students at McDougle Middle School!

Pupusas for Education
From the Pupusas for Education website: “Our founder and executive director have (both) been greatly impacted by affordable education, in particular the Covenant Scholars program at UNC and the Morehead-Cain Scholarship. An affordable education can change any student’s life, and because of the blessing we have received, we believe in paying it forward in pupusas and scholarships!”a