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Street Vendors Can Bring Healthy Food to Los Angeles

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This is part of series exploring issues surrounding the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.

In cities throughout the world, many of the iconic local dishes are sold by vendors who hawk their delicious treats from the street.

Los Angeles is no exception. Many of the food items that make our city a gastronomic destination -- the bacon-wrapped hot dog, tacos, tamales -- are often sold by hundreds of hard-working men and women from not much more than a cart on a sidewalk.

But under the law in the City of Los Angeles, street vending is illegal, making us the only major U.S. city without a system that allows micro-entrepreneurs to use our public spaces to help their businesses flourish.

A vibrant street vendor system offers multiple benefits: active public spaces that keep eyes on the street to make our communities safer, entrepreneurship opportunities for people who want to open a small business, and culinary innovation that has put Los Angeles on the food map.

As the city looks toward finding creative solutions to our most pressing health issues, street vendors can also turn food deserts into food havens by bringing fresh fruits and vegetables into communities that lack access to healthy and affordable food. According to the Health Atlas for the City of Los Angeles, some neighborhoods in South Los Angeles have less than one grocery store per 10,000 residents. That means less access to fresh fruits and vegetables for residents who are also struggling with high rates of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Finding creative opportunities to bring more fresh produce and healthier food options into underserved communities is a key part of making Los Angeles a healthier city.

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Many street vendors already sell healthy food options, at a lower cost than most specialty health retailers. Freshly-cut fruit, grilled chicken sandwiches, and fruit smoothies are just among some of the examples from street vendor menus. They sell culturally-familiar products in low-income neighborhoods where often times the only alternative is fast food.

The Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, my organization, has partnered with other community groups on the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign to find a solution that would legalize street vendors in Los Angeles. As part of the community advisory group for the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles, we have supported strategies that will increase healthy food options in the city's most underserved communities.

The partners in the L.A. Street Vendor Campaign are working hard to legalize street vending. After a motion was introduced last November, City departments are working on a report that will suggest how the City Council can move forward with a plan to allow sidewalk vending with incentives for healthy food vendors. The proposed strategy will include requirements to ensure that street vendors are meeting food-handling regulations and paying all the appropriate fees. The report will be reviewed by the City Council's Economic Development Committee on May 13, and we encourage Angelenos to express their support for the legalization of street vendors.

Food access is one of the top goals of the Plan for a Healthy Los Angeles, with policies and programs that will help residents grow their own fruits and vegetables, incentivize the opening of grocery stores in underserved areas, and expand the number of farmers markets throughout the city. Street vendors are among the innovative solutions that other cities throughout the world and nation, and many street vendors are already providing that service, despite having to do it under the law. With a focus on health, we hope that street vendors can soon be brought on as partners.

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