Could Easing Restrictions on Street-Food Vending Improve Public Health and Economy?

Street vendor cutting food.
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The following is a blog that summarizes a policy paper published by the UC Davis Center for Poverty and Inequality Research.

Despite the passing of California’s Safe Sidewalk Vending Act in 2018, many cities and counties across the state continue to have ordinances that block street food vending. The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act states that municipalities cannot dictate where vendors can operate unless there is a public health concern. 

However, municipalities’ street-food vending restrictions include restrictions beyond those required for other food sellers. As a result, local restrictions on street food vending can potentially be detrimental to the physical and economic well-being of street-food vendors as well as public health. 

In their recently published research study “Economic and Public-Health Benefits of Easing Restrictions on Street-Food Vending,” Catherine Brinkley, an associate professor of Human Ecology, Community and Regional Development at UC Davis, and Kaniyaa Francis, an associate program manager at Public Health Advocates, call for policymakers to review street food vending ordinances in light of public health concerns for customers, vendors, and neighborhoods. The researchers argue street food vending can alleviate disparities in access to healthy food. 

Key Facts

  • The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act mandates that California municipalities cannot determine where street-food vendors can operate unless there is a health, safety, or welfare concern.
  • 85% of the cities we reviewed, and 75% of counties, include street food-vending regulations that go beyond public health rationale and include labor laws and restrictions on time and hours of operation.
  • Improving local street food-vending policy will allow vendors to operate more safely while also opening opportunities for better diet-related health.

Looked at policies in hundreds of locales

Researchers gathered street vending ordinances of 213 California cities and all 58 counties to explore the variation in the city- and county-level street food regulations and to better understand barriers faced by street food vendors. They found 85 percent of the California cities they reviewed —and 75 percent of the counties — still have street-food vending regulations beyond public health rationale. 

In 73 cities and five counties, local governments prohibited or restricted vending near schools. Another 16 cities required a Social Security number listed on the application, prohibiting undocumented workers from legally operating mobile food facilities. Plus, one county and 14 cities banned human-powered vehicles and pushcarts, mobile devices used mostly by immigrant farmworkers. However, these municipal restrictions did not apply to food trucks or stationary establishments, showing a lack of consistency in public health regulations based on vendors’ socioeconomic status. 

Restrictive street-food vending regulations harm public health because they limit vending opportunities and discourage vendors from seeking formal permits if they are vulnerable to policing, the authors said in their paper.

Locally owned, culturally relevant

Small-scale mobile retailers such as farmers’ markets, produce trucks and healthy street food offer locally owned, culturally relevant, cost-effective healthy food access in many parts of the world. Nationwide, revenue for food trucks alone increased by 9.3% from 2010 to 2015, with an estimate of $1 billion in sales in 2019.Nevertheless, many cities and counties have existing code that restricts vending based on locations of operation, times of operation, and labor laws that go beyond those required in other food sectors.

Easing location restrictions would broaden the population’s mobile vendors can reach and could create new economic opportunities and improve health, researchers said in the paper. For example, the researchers argue a greater presence of pushcarts and vending from bicycles could extend the reach of healthy food options for communities and decrease fumes and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Adhering to California’s Safe Sidewalk Vending Act could increase the supply of low-cost fruits and vegetables and their consumption, as well as the safety of street food vendors. Improving street food-vending policy across the state would help support lower-income small businesses and customers alike.

This blog post highlights and summarizes the original policy brief by Catherine Brinkley, an associate professor of Human Ecology, Community and Regional Development at UC Davis, and Kaniyaa Francis, an associate program manager at Public Health Advocates. You can access the full policy brief here

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