The Fight for L.A.’s Street Food Vendors

This story was originally published on Civil Eats.

Outside the Big Saver Foods market in the small Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno, a cluster of sidewalk vendors wait in the parking lot for hungry customers to finish their shopping and stop by for a pupusa or an agua fresca. Follow the tantalizing scent of smoke and grilled chicken that wafts through the air, and you’ll arrive at Pollos Asado El Jaimito, where vendor Jaimie Trujillo is cooking up whole, spatchcocked birds on his outdoor grill.

Trujillo has been making his living as a street vendor in L.A. for three years, but he has only been setting up at this spot for a couple of months. At his previous location, local authorities sometimes cracked down on him for operating without a vending permit. Once, he even had to run and hide from them, lugging his entire grill full of chickens with him on foot so it wouldn’t be confiscated.

Still, Trujillo hasn’t tried to get a permit, because of the warnings he’s heard from other vendors. “They say it’s very difficult, because you need permission, kitchen licenses, and all these permits,” he says in Spanish.

Trujillo’s situation isn’t an uncommon one for street vendors in L.A., where the practice of selling food outdoors has been strictly regulated since tamaleros from Mexico and Chinese immigrants operating pushcarts became commonplace in the city around the turn of the 20th century.

Even though vending was technically legalized in California in 2018, state public health laws still make it almost impossible for most local vendors to get the permits they need to sell food in the formal economy, requiring extensive (and expensive) cart setups and prohibiting tasks like reheating food or cutting fruit.

Now, some advocates and politicians are pushing to overhaul the state’s outdated food code as part of a long-standing struggle to protect vendors from harassment, fines, and legal troubles. But others worry the proposed regulations don’t prioritize food safety enough to protect consumers.

It’s a battle that has been playing out for years in the many major U.S. cities where vending is either banned or strictly regulated. After street food carts were legalized in Chicago in 2015, advocates had to fight to lower steep licensing fines, and vendors in the city still aren’t allowed to prepare food on their carts or at home. In New York, vendors are pushing to reform a system where they can pay upwards of $20,000 for one of a limited number of permits on the black market.

In L.A., where carts selling chili-topped fruits, pupusas, and tacos can be found on almost every corner, the vendor-led campaign to legalize street food began when a group of women in Boyle Heights started speaking out against vendor harassment in 2008. A decade later, after years of protests and packed city council meetings, both the state and city made vending legal, and L.A. handed out its first vending permit in 2020.

“The general population really got behind it, because people love their vendors. And it made no sense for them to be cited,” says Carla De Paz, an organizer with Community Power Collective, which currently works with about 2,500 vendors in L.A.

She says that aside from being a critical source of income for those who need alternative options for work — such as seniors, single moms, undocumented individuals, or formerly incarcerated people — vendors are an irreplaceable part of in L.A.’s communities.

“Vendors provide affordable, healthy foods in neighborhoods that sometimes lack resources like grocery stores,” says De Paz. “They also activate space — there are a lot of streets in our neighborhoods that would otherwise be empty and lonely at night.”

Girl holding sign that reads “Quiero un elote con justico.”

A girl walks with street vendors calling for legalization of their trade in LA, May 2018.
David McNew/Getty Images

Technically Legal, But Cost-Prohibitive

Years after the vending program’s launch, however, only 204 of the estimated 10,000 vendors that occupy L.A.’s sidewalks have received permits, according to the Department of Public Works.

A 2021 report from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Public Counsel asserted that one of the major reasons permit numbers have remained so low is the inability of vendors to acquire county public health licenses, which are a prerequisite. To obtain a license, vending operations have to comply with the rules for “mobile food facilities” laid out in California’s Retail Food Code.

Written before street vending was legalized, the state code is tailored toward food trucks and catering operations and requires that vendors have things like a three-basin sink, 20 gallons of water on hand at all times, and mechanical exhaust ventilation over hot cooking equipment. It also prohibits tasks like cutting fruit and reheating and hot-holding most foods — essentially banning vendors who sell items like tacos and fresh fruit out of carts.

An example of a compliant, made-to-order taco cart laid out in the report is nearly 17 feet long and is estimated to weigh about 1,200 to 1,800 pounds — if built to code, it would likely block the entire sidewalk.

“Right now, we have a public policy that says vending is legal, and we want to encourage sidewalk vending,” says report co-author Doug Smith, an attorney for Public Counsel. “But we still apply these food safety rules that are either impossible to comply with because the resulting equipment would be larger than the sidewalk itself and too heavy to push, or it’s prohibitively expensive.”

As a result, many vendors choose to operate without permits, which can put them at risk of harassment by public officials. In L.A., there have been reports of vendors receiving substantial fines, having their equipment confiscated and thrown away, and facing crackdowns by police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that intimidate those who are undocumented.

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.

Woman using tongs at hot dog stand.

Maria Navas prepares hot dogs in front of LA’s Dolby Theatre in 2019.
Agustin Paullier/AFP via Getty Images

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.

If SB 972 does get passed, it likely won’t be the end of the struggle for street vendors and their advocates in L.A. and beyond — many vendors will still face challenges such as language accessibility issues during the permitting process, economic barriers to obtaining approved equipment, and continued harassment by community members or other business owners, which have become increasingly common throughout the city.

But Community Power Collective’s Carla De Paz says it’s important to preserve this important staple of L.A. culture. “A lot of the vendors we work with were cooks in their hometowns outside of the U.S., and they bring those traditions with them. It’s cultural wisdom,” she says. “It really showcases the cultural diversity of L.A. and other cities.”

Meanwhile, the vendors at Pollos Asado El Jaimito say that while getting a permit would be great, they remain confident in the quality and safety of their food, regardless of that legal element.

“Our food is delicious, and at the same time, you don’t know what you’re eating in a restaurant either,” says employee Miranda Trujillo. “Out here, we’re doing it in front of the people — we’re not hiding behind a wall.”

“It’s better than [the chain restaurant] El Pollo Loco,” adds Jaimie Trujillo, with a smile.

The Fight for LA’s Street Food Vendors [Civil Eats]

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