Street vendors furtively do business in Los Angeles
We first saw this street vendor standing next to his cart in South Los Angeles one hot afternoon last summer. Someone was purchasing one of the frozen desserts he sold from his bike/street cart, keeping it cold with dry ice.
He was leery, though, when Rudy Espinoza and I approached him, but still lifted a lid to show us the colorful frozen food.
Street vending is illegal in Los Angeles, so this vendor had every reason to worry. These solo entrepreneurs tell of their equipment and products being seized by law enforcement officials, and getting slapped with fines.
But Espinoza was there to help, and he handed the young man his business card. He’s part of an effort to legalize street vending in Los Angeles, and to steer the vendors toward offering healthy fare in areas with few grocery stores or restaurants. These vendors often serve up foods such as quesadillas and tostadas, for as little as $2 or $3. Espinoza, a senior program officer with the Community Financial Resource Center in South Los Angeles, helps promotes business in the low-income neighborhood with microloans and business development support. He’s leading his organization’s Healthy Food Cart & Street Vendor Initiative, which began in 2011.
South LA, like many inner city neighborhoods, has few grocery stores and residents typically drive long distances or take time-consuming bus rides to shop for groceries. Many don’t have a car or the time, so instead pick up meals at fast-food restaurants or get something from a corner liquor store – often high-fat, high-calorie processed foods. This lack of easy access to affordable, healthful food is blamed as one factor behind the higher obesity rates in poor neighborhoods. One-third of adults in South LA are obese, compared with less than one-quarter overall in Los Angeles County.1
Espinoza’s organization, in partnership with other groups including the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, is pushing City Hall to legalize street vending, particularly in neighborhoods called “food deserts” given their lack of access to quality food. They’re supported by funding from foundations to promote healthful living and economic revitalization.
The first step in the quest is permitting the street carts to sell at farmers’ markets, after they pass health inspections and other regulatory steps. That’s beginning to happen, but it’s still not the solution. Cart owners say they can’t survive just selling at farmer’s market, which are held once a week and for a few hours. They need daily access to their markets.
In the mid-90s, Los Angeles lawmakers attempted to legalize street vending, but the process was so complicated it sputtered out. And city officials have to factor in the concerns of bricks-and-mortar restaurants and food stores, who pay rent and don’t welcome low-cost competition outside their doors.
But with pressure from vendors and organizations like Espinoza’s, Los Angeles is taking another look. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s spokesman said that the city is re-examining the prospect of legalizing street food vending, according to a Los Angeles Business Times article.2 And this time with an eye toward easing restrictions. To keep the pressure up, on Feb. 28 the East LA Community Corporation is hosting a panel discussion called “Make Good Food Legal.”
Other cities are far ahead of Los Angeles on the issue. New York City, for example, in 2008 started its “Green Cart” initiative, which authorized up to 1,000 licenses for street vendors to sell fresh produce in certain areas. Business blossomed after the law passed, and some 500 carts operate today, run largely by immigrants who work long hours to achieve their dream of financial independence. 3
That’s the other boon from the legalization of street carts. It gives motivated people a chance to earn a living wage, in their community and with no fear of being fired. And while selling popular, inexpensive items conveniently near peoples’ homes.
But the street vendor Espinoza and I talked with quickly packed up his cart onto the back of his truck and drove away, clearly anxious over our encounter. That ended his prospects for sales that afternoon in that neighborhood.
TAKEAWAY: Street vending, which is popular in many other countries, could play a significant role in increasing access to locally-made, quality foods in areas with few grocery stores. But laws need changing to support it.
1. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, “Trends in Obesity: Adult Obesity Continues to Rise,” September 2012.
2. Los Angeles Business Journal, “Street vendors cook up challenge to sidewalk sales ban: legalization effort turns up heat on Los Angeles City Council,”Oct. 8, 2012. (Not available free online.)
3. New York Times, Opinion Page, “Conquering Food Deserts With Green Carts,” by David Bornstein, April 18, 2012.
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