If you were on Mission Street on Friday night, you might have seen The Truck Stop and Filling Station warmly lit, people gathered under awnings and around tables.

The Truck Stop and Filling Station — a food truck and café, respectively, that work in conjunction but operate as separate businesses — are never open during the evenings, their lunch specials and warm cups of chai reserved for the afternoon crowd. But Friday evening, the two businesses worked to raise money for Food What?!, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Life Lab.

In its fifth year, Food What?! focuses on youth empowerment through food science. Teenagers learn about farming and working with food, while learning about food justice.

The food justice movement aims to make healthy food more accessible to all.

“We use food as a vehicle to teach leadership skills and job training and create an environment where youth can really find their voice and feel more confident in themselves,” said Abby Bell, program manager at Food What?!. “We grow, we cook, and we distribute sustainably grown produce and those are all tools for the youth to go deeper into realms of food justice and social justice.”

Photo Credit: FoodWhat.org

Food What?! alum and an employee of The Truck Stop, C.C. Parsons, 19, said that Food What?! has introduced him to a side of the food industry he had never seen before — and may have never been aware of if it weren’t for the program.

“I took the journey from seed to plate,” Parsons said. “You plant it, you grow it, you harvest it. I had never seen that before,”¦and it makes you think a lot more about what you’re putting in your body and what you’re feeding people — which is what I do. I feed people, breakfast, noon and night.”

The proprietors of both The Truck Stop and Filling Station have ties to Food What?! and the UCSC Farm, but their love of food extends further than their humble foodie enclaves.

Owners of Filling Station, Amber Tupin and Dave Stimpson, have played different roles in the food world.

Tupin is a farmer, a baker, a food writer and has worked on large-scale projects like Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. Stimpson, also a farmer, has worked as a coffee roaster.

The owner of The Truck Stop, Fran Grayson, is a farmer and a cook.

“We’ve been part of the good food movement for a really long time,” Tupin said. “We all really care about food in general and the ethics of it and food justice and the integrity of the product because we’ve seen all sides of it.”

The businesses take their products’ origin into consideration, carefully selecting what they use; Filling Station buys coffee from Four Barrels in San Francisco, a small roaster that works closely with farmers, and bread purchased from local Companion bakers who emphasize organic baked goods.

“We have a firm belief in using quality, organic local ingredients,” Tupin said.

If you stand between the two businesses, you’ll experience two very different cuisines. Turn one direction, and you’ll smell fresh baked sweets and the pleasant char of roasted coffee or the earthy aroma of spices and dark cocoa floating past the café window. Turn the other way, and you’ll smell warm tortillas, sesame, cilantro and roasted pork. Savory and sweet melt together and the happy chatter, laughter and welcoming glow of the string of white lights and candles make the little spot on Mission feel more like a home kitchen than a curbside eatery on one of the most congested streets in town.

“We’re really trying to keep it simple so that the quality stays really good,” Tupin said.

A friend of Grayson’s and a past volunteer with Food What?!, Dan Tran applauded the value The Truck Stop puts on its products.

He said that food is often seen “as a burden by a lot of people,” but food is always being re-evaluated and rediscovered.

“People’s palates are always changing,” Tran said.

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel