Street Food Is Not a Crime

Elote photo.jpg
Elote, from Santa Monica Boulevard. Photo by Flickr user A Culinary (Photo) Journal under Creative Common license.

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@losjeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.
Law: California Retail Food Code
Year: 2006
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Mark Vallianatos


The guy standing in the traffic island, hawking mangoes. Criminal?

The lady scraping spatula to smooth grill, prepping the next batch of carne asada. Criminal?

The guy rolling through, pushing a mobile unit housing steaming hot corn on the cob, something resembling butter and some chili powder? Criminal?

Sorry to prejudice your deliberations here, but as it turns out, most of the street food sold in Los Angeles is done so in violation of the law.

"It's illegal in two forms," Mark Vallianatos says of many of the items sold from carts, grills and stands. Food trucks operate under different regulations which will be addressed in a future Laws That Shaped L.A. column.

Vallianatos is an author, LA Streetsblog contributor -- including this great piece, Occidental College adjunct professor and policy director at Oxy's Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI). He's nominated the Retail Food Code as a Law That Shaped L.A.
"It's illegal under the California Retail Food Code. And also in Los Angeles, it's illegal to sell food on the sidewalk," Vallianatos says, citing Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 42(b).

"But," he continues, "[selling street food is] also ubiquitous, helps define the city and is really an essential part of Los Angeles culture and the food scene in local neighborhoods."

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Vallianatos -- who previously spoke with the Laws That Shaped L.A. about zoning and sprawl and Why We Don't Live Where We Work -- rightly labels all of the above as contradictory.

"So the question is, 'How do you develop a system that is legal?'" the policy director says. "That's something we're wrestling with right now."

The "we" in the above quote means, in a larger sense, all of us who are interested parties in Los Angeles -- from the people who sell elote, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, pupusas and all other manner of edibles, to the gastronomically obsessed Gold-o-philes (and yes of course he deserves all the acclaim), to public space advocates to free market aficionados to, in some cases, immigration rights advocates.

Street food scene. Photo by and courtesy Mark Vallianatos
Street food scene. Photo by and courtesy Mark Vallianatos

The "we" in Vallianatos quote also refers specifically to the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, a food reform coalition that the professor is part of.

Text on the 'Street Food' section of the coalition's website reads, in part:

So, how did we all get to this point? How did Angelenos come to consume so much contraband cuisine?

In part, thanks to the ongoing reaction to the food preparation horrors that Upton Sinclair wrote about more than a century ago in "The Jungle", Vallianatos says.

"We used to have food contamination, and even to this day, there are still a lot of issues anywhere from on the farm to in a restaurant," Vallianatos says. "If food isn't prepared properly, people can get sick and die."

The professor -- like most if not all street food reform advocates -- is not in favor of eliminating vital food safety measures. He's certainly not in favor of, say, deadly outbreaks of listeria or any of the horrors found on the pages of Sinclair's book and in the news media since and still.

But Vallianatos, same as Laws That Shape L.A. regular contributor James Rojas, does think the regulations that govern street food selling could be re-fashioned to create a situation where everyone involved benefits.

For example, UEPI -- directed by Bob Gottlieb -- deals with food access and obesity and other public health issues.

Valliantos' UEPI affiliation puts him, then, in an excellent position to observe that the current street food selling prohibitions make life much easier for vendors who sell pre-packaged bags of potato chips and soda cans than on vendors selling sliced fruit.

Vallianatos explains:

The Retail Food Code, sometimes called "CalCode," also mandates that if the vendor's products require the use of a utensil -- say, a cutting knife -- then the vendor's cart needs to have a three-chambered sink -- one for dirty utensils, one for soaking and cleaning, the other for drying.

The Code also includes requirements for refrigeration and for separate areas of counter space for various functions. The demands add up, size-wise. "You think you can do a little push cart and suddenly, you can't do it anymore," Vallianatos says.

Valliantos offers up an example of all the above regulations in action, and their cumulative effect: "You've probably seen cut fruit carts around the city," he says. "This is one of the few types of street foods that is popular on the westside, the eastside and in South L.A."

Vallianatos continues: "This is considered a healthy choice -- it's really cool to go up to one of the guys and say, 'I want a mango', or a pineapple, and see them cut it. And they have what look like these antiseptic carts made of metal and filled with ice."

In other words -- illegal, illegal, illegal. On three counts.

Fruit from a cart. Is it legal? Photo by stu_spivack used under a Creative Commons license
Fruit from a cart. Is it legal? Photo by stu_spivack used under a Creative Commons license

"The sellers are handling food so they need a washing sink," Vallianatos explains. "They are using a knife to cut the fruit, so they need a three-chamber sink. They need to have electric refrigeration and they are using ice."

Indeed, the County of Los Angeles' Public Health Department clearly lays out eight bullet-pointed regulations on this page - the internet presence of the Department's Street Vending Compliance Program.

"Illegal vending is a serious public health hazard to our communities throughout Los Angeles County," text on the site reads. "The Street Vending Compliance Program is responsible for inspecting these vendors who prepare and/or sell food without a Public Health Permit."

The site also includes photos of the approved permits, photos forbidden food carts, and a hotline number [(626) 430-5500) for people who care to dime on a seller.

When a vendor is busted, Vallianatos says that the vendor's moveable feast-mobile is often confiscated. Vallianatos says he's been told that a County warehouse fills up every six weeks with such seized street-aurants.

So, then what happens to the carts and grills and stands? "They basically sell them for scrap," Vallianatos says. "Most of the vendors don't want to get involved with the legal system, so they won't try and come back and fight the citations. It's a wasteful situation."

Of course, the enforcement squad has to first catch the vendors before they can seize their illicit units. During the course of research on street food vending, Vallianatos and his colleagues interviewed some of the enforcement folks.

The compliance offers apparently speculate that some street vendors employ spotters. The spotters presumably monitor the enforcement vehicles as they depart from headquarters, follow them and alert vendors when the enforcement units draw near.

"They told me that sometimes their inspectors will come to a street where there have been reports of vendors," Valliantos says. "And they say they can still smell the food, but they can't see anyone because they've run off."

Street food in other cities -- okay, we see you Portlandia, please sit back down -- isn't necessarily as stuck in the shadows. And L.A. has at least once nibbled at street food reform. Back in 1994, the city permitted an amendment to the sidewalk vending ordinance that allowed a few vendors to go legit.

This short-term exemption permitted Mama's Hot Tamales, of MacArthur Park fame, to legally sell off-site its glorious goods. This amendment, though, turned out to be at once overly restrictive and under-enforced, Vallianatos says.

"You need twenty percent of adjacent property owners to sign petitions to approve of it and you had fixed locations and pretty high costs," Vallianatos says. "Then illegal vendors would come up right next to you or right across the street and sell cheaper. These two issues caused it to fail and right now there are no legal zones in the city."

Taco table in Eagle Rock | Photo by JoePhilipson used under a Creative Commons license
Taco table in Eagle Rock | Photo by JoePhilipson used under a Creative Commons license

So the city's street food life sneaks along nearly two decades later -- more black market than supermarket. That's even with this recent home-baking development as well as progress regarding farmers markets.

So what are the ingredients for change? "Food safety is still a legitimate concern," Vallianatos readily acknowledges. "I think there is a way to have flexibility in how you design carts so it would still be possible for low-income immigrants to use this as an entrepreneurship entry point."

He's ready to work with both health regulators and car and truck manufactures to make that happen. Meanwhile, legalizing such a key element of the city's street life would -- as James Rojas notes here - also help return Los Angeles public space to pedestrians instead of only automobiles and also acknowledge that the city is changing from more suburban to urban, as well as becoming more polyglot -- and epicurean - bite by bite.

Because for every Coolhaus and Kogi, think about how many anonymous vendors are wheeling beat-up carts through the big city; hawking fruits in traffic islands; twinkling dinner-sounding bells on sidewalks; seducing club kids with post-set pepper and onion aromas.

"The issue," Vallianatos says, "is making sure there's a balance between enforcement and creating a good system for vendors so they feel like they have a legitimate reason to become legal and can actually sell and make money and operate and [dealing] with these health code issues so making sure that no one can do it without a $200,000 food truck."


To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy

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