Activists want to legalize sidewalk street vendors in South LA and elsewhere

imageStreet vendors hawking fresh fruit and tamales from push carts are as much a part of LA as sunshine and beaches. But it’s actually a misdemeanor to sell food, or anything for that matter, on public sidewalks.

That’s out of step with many big cities in the U.S. says Mark Vallianatos, an urban and environmental policy expert at Occidental College. “Ironically, it’s the only one of the ten largest cities in the U.S. that doesn’t allow for the selling of food on the sidewalk.”

He says many low-income immigrants take up street-vending anyway at the risk of having their carts confiscated. “This is one of the few economic niches that they can move into to start providing for themselves and their family.”

Vallianatos estimates there are as many as twelve thousand unlicensed vendors in the city. Because the practice is a vital source of income for so many residents, activists are pushing City Council to reform the law.

Janet Favela is a community organizer with the East L.A. Community Coalition. She says there’s a ways to go before concrete proposals are made and many questions must be asked. “If we legalize street vending, what should we do? What should it look like? How is it going to better serve their needs so that they do feel like there’s an opportunity for them.”

But even if changes are made, Vallianatos says California’s Health Code presents more challenges to vendors.

“If you want to operate legally, you have to have a cart that has a certain number of sinks on it, or refrigeration, or heating of water, etc. The solution might be to try to work with the companies that manufacture food trucks and carts, and with vendors to try and come up with a lower cost version of the required equipment.”

If a solution can be reached, Vallianatos says that it could provide an economic boost to the city too.

“This activity is happening in many places, but right now the city isn’t getting any permit fees from it, and they’re not getting any sales tax from it.”

Beyond the financial benefit to the city, Favela says vendors also help keep Angelenos healthy.

“We do want to incentivize healthy foods and fruits and vegetables, because we do think that there are specific areas that are part of the city that don’t have much access to healthy foods.”

And she says doing that has a positive impact on the local economy.

“Street vendors always say … we do contribute to this economy and we buy all of our products in the city of Los Angeles.”

The coalition members have held initial meetings with City Council staffers and plans to keep building community support for their movement over the next few months.