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Street Vending

L.A. City Council Stands Up for Taqueros and Fruteros, Urges California to Remove Obstacles for Street Food Vendors

1:23 PM PST on November 30, 2021

This morning, Councilmember Nithya Raman led L.A. City Council in considering whether to call on the state of California to make changes to its Retail Food Code, with the expressed interest in making it easier for street vendors to work without the threat of citation, fines, confiscation of materials and equipment, and prohibitive fees. The proposal passed with 13 "ayes," reflecting the full support of the City Council in modernizing the state code.

The suggested changes aim to overturn the code’s current ban on the cutting of fruit, which effectively keeps our fruteros from ever being legally permitted on our streets, as well as bans on reheating or keeping prepared foods hot on a food cart. Suggestions to the code also emphasize an improved process of permitting street vendors that does away with expensive fees and cart requirements that continue to be obstacles for upstart entrepreneurs.

Specific improvements to this California code, which was not created nor intended to include street food vendors, would also define reasonable standards to permit food preparation activities, as well as provide “a streamlined cart inspection and approval process,” with greater discretion given to local health authorities.

"The resolution basically asks that the city of L.A. makes this a legislative priority in Sacramento," Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action, tells L.A. TACO. "It is saying there are some interventions needed in the California Food Code to make sure street vendors have an equitable pathway to get their permits and also affordable street vending carts. That the current California Retail Food Code is impacting street vendors, micro-entrepreneurs, and food retailers in our city, and we want Sacramento lawmakers to make this change."

"Unfortunately, L.A. lawmakers don’t have the jurisdiction, but they can use their pulpits to say to their colleagues in Sacramento, 'Hey, this is important to us, help us fix this.'”

The recommendations would also ask that the code be changed to reduce costly sink requirements while expanding “the definition of safe locations for food preparation” and creating greater inclusion for sidewalk vendors in the Cottage Food and Microenterprise Home Kitchen program, which allows for the legal preparation of certain foods in homes and other private venues.

Raman first introduced this resolution in late September. According to NBC, she cited a report released in August by the UCLA School of Law Community Economic Development clinic and nonprofit law firm Public Counsel called “Unfinished Business: How Food Regulations Starve Sidewalk Vendors of Opportunity and What Can Be Done to Finish the Legalization of Street Food.”

The report details the prohibitive permitting fees, as well as the longstanding and continued harassment, ticketing, confiscation of equipment and supplies, and general disruption to and widespread insecurity in street vendors’ livelihoods caused by authorities—including crackdowns by the Sheriff’s department—despite local and statewide legislation passed in 2018 intended to legalize street vending.

"There are very few people, especially restaurants and street vendors that can tell you that the current system works," says Espinoza. "There’s a lot of people that are worried about street vending, folks who say they want to street vendors to get permits, and there’s cities that want that, but unfortunately it’s nearly impossible for a food vendor to get permits and get the carts because they’re so expensive. We’re putting very low-income entrepreneurs in an impossible place. We really need changes. We’re looking for a legislator in the senate or the assembly to take this on and be a champion for these changes."

The report finds that only 165 street vending permits have been issued since the program began in 2020, despite a population of approximately 10,000 eligible sidewalk food vendors. It cites the high costs of launching and maintaining such a business, in addition to the $5,000 in annual fees and problematic equipment standards that make carts too expensive, heavy to move, and intrusive to pedestrians to operate.

“Even as local officials make it easier for brick-and-mortar restaurants to dine outside, we see them vigorously enforcing a system that works like a de facto ban on L.A.’s celebrated street food,” Raman said in the September 28th meeting.

In addition to the Retail Food Code all but outlawing food vending with restrictions on cutting fruit and storing prepared foods, Scott Cummins, one of the reports’ co-authors, cited a “tangled web of state, county, and city laws denying sidewalk vendors access to permits to legally sell food, denying vendors’ dreams of entrepreneurship, while harming all Angelenos by undermining food safety principles that the laws claim to protect.”

The report states:

“These barriers prohibit a lot of side-walk food vending as we know it. The CRFC ban on slicing fruit or re-heating previously prepared food prohibits the core functions of two of the most iconic southern California street vending operations—the fruit cart and the taco stand. And where compliance with technical requirements is theoretically possible, a dizzying array of design requirements for integrated multiple-compartment sinks, plumbing, ventilation, refrigeration and food storage all combine to require a cart that, in many cases, would be too large for most sidewalks and too heavy to push.”

With many locals feeling that 2018’s legislation did nothing but increase the burden on the majority of L.A.'s sidewalk food vendors—one of the most treasured pillars of life and cultural draws in Los Angeles—here’s hoping Raman’s proposed changes finally create better security for those who seek to survive by feeding us.

Before the measure was unanimously approved this morning, Councilmember Kevin DeLeon said in support of the proposed changes, "Our street vendors ambulantes, are so part of the cultural fabric of who we are as a city... who here hasn't enjoyed these street vendors?"

Espinoza, who has worked for over a decade on behalf of L.A. street vendors, shares his appreciation, in turn, for local lawmakers who are standing up for the entrepreneurs.

"I think it’s amazing that there’s leadership at the City Council—Councilmembers Raman, Price, DeLeon, and others—voicing their concern for street vendors," he says. "It takes political courage to take this on. And though they can not make the changes themselves, they’re calling on their counterparts in Sacramento to join them in doing this. We’re really happy about this."

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