Civil Eats: The Fight for L.A.’s Street Food Vendors

March 28, 2022


In recent years, multiple well-known vending hubs—including the enormously popular Avenue 26 Night Market in Lincoln Heights, the Guatemalan Night Market in Westlake, and Cudahy’s Patata Street Market—have been shut down without warning, forcing vendors to disperse to other locations around the city where it might be more difficult for customers to find them.

Merlin Averado, a street vendor who sells hot dogs in Hollywood, says she has received multiple fines ranging between $100 and $500 for unpermitted vending, and has also had several carts confiscated. Each time it happens, she has to spend about $500 dollars to have another cart custom made. “We do everything on our own, and [the carts] are not inspected by the health department, because there is no cart that exists for the sidewalk yet,” she says in Spanish.

The cost of replacing equipment, on top of fines from the health department, can add up quickly for street vendors, who earn an average of $15,000 per year, according to the UCLA–Public Counsel report. Averado, who sits on Community Power Collective’s vendor leadership committee, has been helping to organize the vendors in her Hollywood community for years. She says being able to get her hot dog cart licensed would remove a huge source of stress from her life.

“I would no longer work with that fear of the police or the Bureau of Street Services, wondering if they will give me a ticket,” she says.

The Push to Update the Food Code

In January, a coalition of nonprofits and activist groups—including Community Power Collective, Public Counsel, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, and others—launched the California Street Vendor campaign to demand an update to the food code. In early February, California Senator Lena Gonzalez introduced SB 972, which aims to create more specific rules for street vendors by introducing a new “compact mobile food facility” category to the code.

The bill, which addresses many of the concerns posed by advocates, would allow compact facilities to cut fruit, keep food warm, and reheat cooked food, among other things. Vendors would also be exempted from needing certain food safety certifications, and would be able to take advantage of California’s “cottage food” laws, which allow food to be prepared in inspected home kitchens (or, potentially, in approved community spaces like churches).

The bill removes hefty equipment requirements like the three-basin sink, replacing it with a more modest one-basin sink and a spare stash of clean utensils. It also allows the health department to pre-approve plans for standardized or mass-produced mobile facilities, so that vendors won’t have to submit cart plans for approval. So far, only one “legal” hot food vending cart—a tamale cart that costs about $7,500—has been approved by the Department of Public Health.

Significantly, the bill would also remove all criminal penalties for violating the food code, allowing only for administrative fines.

Food Safety Requirements

Not everyone has confidence that the proposed bill will be good for public health. Roger A. Clemens, a professor at University of Southern California’s Regulatory Science Program, says it should be rewritten to include more requirements around labeling, sanitation, and food safety.

“You’re supposed to be trained and certified so you go through the understanding of sanitation practices. Nothing like that is indicated in this bill,” he says.

It’s true that the bill would exempt vendors from the requirement to have a certified food manager on staff, although supporters note that they would still be required to acquire a food handler’s card—the standard food safety credential required of restaurant employees. This is similar to the requirements for small food facilities that operate at fairs, swap meets, and farmers’ markets. Vendors would also be required to follow the rules put in place by their local health departments. In an emailed statement, Gonzalez said she believes this would ultimately promote greater food safety and improve public health by making vending easier to regulate.

“By reducing the barriers to obtain a permit, more sidewalk vendors will participate in a local permitting process that incorporates food safety education and sanitation control,” says Gonzalez. If that happens, she adds, “public health agencies will have significantly greater ability to educate vendors and offer corrective measures to cart designs and standard operating procedures that will increase the overall health and safety of the sidewalk food vending industry.”

Diana Winters, deputy director at the Resnick Center for Food Law & Policy at UCLA School of Law, says it’s also important to look at public health from a broader perspective.

“Allowing the sidewalk vendors to be permitted and regulated may provide the public with access to fresh cooked, minimally processed, fresh foods, which they may not have otherwise,” says Winters. In neighborhoods that lack grocery stores and have a higher concentration of fast food businesses, such foods could make people healthier overall.

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