It was just three years ago that the food truck trend moved in from the east and west coasts to Wichita, Kansas. From a single truck serving tacos and truffle fries, the local food truck industry has grown to include nearly 20 trucks offering everything from waffles to gazpacho with blue crab to fried pickle spears. Spring through fall, these mobile restaurants gather on Sundays in Wichita’s popular Fountains at WaterWalk, selling their wares to enthusiastic customers.
But the busiest food trucks in Wichita park elsewhere on those Sundays. They serve a clientele who can’t afford to pay even the reasonable prices of street food. In fact, the most popular trucks in the area don’t charge a dime for the dinners they serve every night of the week, all year long. The Lord’s Diner, a ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, operates food trucks in two of the city’s neediest neighborhoods. Every day the two trucks serve more than a thousand carryout meals, and at the end of the month, when customers are running low on money, close to 2,000.
The Lord’s Diner began in 2001 in a brick-and-mortar building, commissioned by then-Bishop Eugene Gerber. The Diner offered the city’s only evening meal service for the hungry. A second location followed in 2011.
Then a few years ago, the board of The Lord’s Diner, aware that only a third of Wichita’s poor were being fed, began looking for new ways to serve the community. Statistics provided by the Kansas Food Bank helped them identify an under-served area. The board decided that a mobile facility—with low overhead and the advantage of bringing food to the people rather than bringing people to the food—was the best way to help this particular urban “food desert,” an area where access to fresh food is limited or nonexistent. They debuted their first food truck in September of 2013. The first night they served 300 people; by the end of the year the daily numbers had grown to 500-600.
Soon after, they were approached by the sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph who were delivering food to residents of Wichita’s Hilltop neighborhood on a golf cart. Hilltop is one of the city’s poorest areas, populated by low-income, minimum-wage workers, many of whom work several jobs to keep their families afloat. The Sisters requested help in serving the area, and so in June of this year, The Lord’s Diner launched a second truck. Five hundred people showed up the first night. By the end of the month the numbers had grown to a thousand. Jan Haberly, executive director of The Lord’s Diner, says that about 750 of the Hilltop customers are regulars who never miss a meal—rain, sleet, or snow.
Both trucks park near recreation centers with indoor space for people to eat if they want. Meals always include a meat, salad, vegetable, fruit, and dessert. Haberly says they serve a lot of casserole-type meals—goulash and stroganoff—that volunteers prepare earlier in the day at the permanent facility.
Each truck is 20 feet long, about the size of a UPS truck, with two windows for serving, and equipped with warmers and refrigerators. Painted on the trucks are the words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and a painting of three smiling children being served by an unseen giver, presumably Jesus. Director Haberly says that Jesus is their model for service: Food is served with kindness, respect, and compassion, “no questions asked, no judgment.”
Which is why The Lord’s Diner has a thing or two to teach the other Wichita food trucks about customer service. As Ms. Haberly sees it, “We aren't necessarily changing lives in large ways, but in small ways, showing others that someone cares—looking into each guest’s eyes and seeing the person that Jesus sees.”