New report examines challenges for Los Angeles meals road distributors, affords options

Los Angeles food vendors face a number of challenges these days, including high start-up costs. A new in-depth report looks into the complexities of food street vending and offers some solutions.

Roughly 10,000 food street vendors are eligible for permits in the City of LA, according to a report by UCLA Law and Public Counsel. The report states that since the city began issuing the permits in 2020, it has issued 165.

Merlin Alvarado, a local food vendor, is featured in the report.

“I have a permitted fruit cart and an unpermitted hot dog cart,” said Alvarado, who helps illustrate some of the challenges other sidewalk food vendors face.

The report describes the latter permit as nearly impossible.

“I was expecting maybe a long process with a lot of forms to fill out in order to get a permit. Not a process that’s literally impossible for most folks to get through,” said Brandon Payette, staff attorney at Public Counsel.

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“We estimate that selling unpackaged food incurs a minimum of $10,000 in start-up costs plus $5,000 in annual fees for workers earning an average of only $15,000 per year. This amounts to a ban,” said Payette.

The report also shows a diagram of cart dimensions that are not conductive to sidewalk street vending.

“I am given hope by the knowledge that these are not unfixable issues,” Payette added.

The lawyers and law students who conducted the research looked at each level of the permitting process, talked with street vendors, and made more than two dozen local and state policy recommendations: from removing police from local enforcement, to not issuing citations.

“Criminal penalties need to be replaced by real support systems,” said Katie McKeon, staff attorney at Public Counsel.

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“In New York, most vendors are only required to include a single sink on a cart — far less than the four-sink compartments required in California,” said Joe Philipson, a UCLA Law student.

The recommendations also stress that the county health department needs to provide authentic access to information.

“Information about the current permit process is almost exclusively provided in English, and is lumped in with food truck information, making it difficult to understand what is and isn’t required of a smaller sidewalk-based operation,” said McKeon.

The LA County Department of Public Health said it will review and evaluate each of their recommendations. It’s working on a pilot program to construct a low-cost cart that follows state law and said it’s investigating the feasibility of a loan program.

“We want to amplify this information that the report is giving us,” said Carla De Paz with Community Power Collective.

The groups organizing alongside street vendors created a toolkit, asking the public to share the report and its recommendations with elected officials across the state.

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