LAist: LA Street Vendors Look To Bill In Sacramento For Help Getting Permits
By Leslie Berestein Rojas
One hot Sunday afternoon along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, street vendor Cesar Benitez and his wife Margarita were doing brisk business at their aguas frescas stand, ladling their candy-colored, Mexican-style fruit drinks into cups of ice for thirsty customers.
They were among the dozens of food and non-food vendors lining the sidewalk next to the Commerce Center shopping development, which sits on the Commerce side of the border.
This stretch is home to a popular street food scene — in spite of what vendors here describe as frequent visits from county public health officials and Sheriff’s deputies. Sometimes during these visits, Benitez said, his colorful aguas frescas have wound up in the trash.
“They throw it all away,” he bemoaned. “In my case, they’ll get a trash can or something, and throw out everything we have.”
Then “they just give us a paper and tell us that we need a health permit,” he said.
Benitez knows he needs a county health permit. Although California decriminalized street vending four years ago, street vendors who sell food must have one if they’re to do business legally.
But as Benitez and others have experienced, trying to get one under the current state rules that govern mobile food sellers has been an exercise in frustration. He said he’s tried to get a health permit, but he can’t.
“When I’ve gone to public health,” he said, “I sell aguas frescas, and I’ve been told that I need to have a lonchera, like this one,” pointing to a large food truck nearby — a vehicle that he said is way beyond his budget.
Benitez said a couple of years ago, he even put a down payment on a new cart that he’d hoped would help him pass muster. But at least for the time being, he said, no cart will do for what he’s selling.
“Unfortunately,” Benitez went on, “with the laws as they are now, there’s no existing permit public health can give us.”
“The law was written for food trucks, essentially,” said Doug Smith, supervising senior staff attorney with Public Counsel, a pro bono legal services organization that’s long worked with L.A. street vendors.
Food vendors are required to have things like large three-compartment sinks, overhead mechanical exhaust ventilation systems, large refrigeration equipment requirements, "things that you would see on a food truck or a commercial grade kitchen, but don't make sense for a small-scale sidewalk funding operation,” Smith said.
The California Retail Food Code requires mobile food sellers who sell non-packaged items to have cumbersome and costly equipment if they’re to comply with health rules, he said.
A bill that cleared the state legislature in late August and is on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk aims to change this. SB 972, sponsored by State Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), would update the retail food code, making it easier for street vendors to obtain health permits with smaller, more affordable equipment.
It would also give street vendors easier access to approved commissary space to prepare their food and allow additional food preparation to occur on a vendor’s cart — for example, reheating previously cooked food, or slicing fruit.
The bill would also remove criminal penalties for noncompliance, replacing misdemeanor penalties with administrative fines for code violations. Critics of the bill have worried that it could diminish local governments’ power to regulate street vendors.
State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) is among those who have worried about regulating street vendors. He sponsored related legislation earlier this year that sought to give local authorities more control over enforcement.
“I think having a better path to permitting will help,” said Allen, who ultimately backed SB 972. Still, “one of the challenges that cities have is that there's just not a lot of enforceability in the current system,” he said.
But something has to change, street vendor advocates say, if legal street vending programs like the one in L.A. are to work at all.