Street Vending and the Debate Over What "Community" Looks Like

Taco Stand in Santa Ana, Orange County. Credit: Carlos Perea, Harbor Institute for Immigrant & Economic Justice

LA’s bustling night markets. Long Beach’s lively Black street vendor row. The iconic snack-filled carts and tamale vendors working on Santa Ana’s streets. Vietnamese vegetable vendors selling produce on sidewalks in Westminster. For many, the smells of food and sounds of conversation on sidewalks invoke nostalgia and are at the heart of their communities. Across Southern California, people of diverse backgrounds work as street vendors who are all trying to make a living and preserve culture through food.

Street vending has garnered significant attention in the last few years within local politics and on social media, with some people defending vendors against hostile attacks and others demanding stricter regulation of sidewalk vending. While many see the vendors as a reminder of their community, others see them as an invasion of public space. In this blog, I examine different perspectives of street vending as testaments to grassroots struggle, truly public space, and working-class strategies of sustaining community health.

Recently, exclusionary rhetoric against street vending and sweeps of street vendors have become increasingly visible in Orange County. In December of 2022, the City of Santa Ana announced its collaboration with the OC Health Agency that led to the shut down of over 100 sidewalk food vending locations in the city [1]. In March of 2023, the same city voted to adopt a resolution urging state legislators to amend state laws to give local jurisdictions more power to enact their own regulations to ensure, as some council members claimed, that they could maintain sanitary conditions [1]. Council members in Santa Ana framed their resolution in response to SB 972 and 946, California bills that decriminalized street vending and made violations subject to administrative citations rather than misdemeanors or infraction offenses.

Many other local governments like Santa Ana have taken alternative approaches to limit street vending. In Orange, city council members voted unanimously to expand legal authority to impound street vending carts and food as well as placing a penalty of 6 months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both [2]. In addition to impoundment, those wishing to regain their property are subject to a $710 impoundment fee and required to show proof of license.

Orange Councilmembers like Kathy Tavoularis showed an intent to push towards even more punitive legislation as she described street vending as “not entrepreneurial. This is another attempt to get into our neighborhoods” [2]. While it’s unclear what the councilwoman believes entrepreneurialism is defined as, the rhetoric that aims to exclude existing members of the community from economic opportunity is hurtful and insulting. Even worse, it alienates those who have been participating in the local economy for years.

The Street Vendor Movement

Although the exact origin of street vending in California remains unclear, Mexican and Chinese street food vendors can date back to the 1870s in Los Angeles [3]. Many street vendors moved to the outskirts of Los Angeles to avoid segregation laws in the early 1910s, and street vending continued to be a risky activity for decades – and still can be. It wasn’t until over a century later that the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act of 2018, SB 946, was signed into law by former Governor Jerry Brown. This law decriminalized sidewalk vending in California and was meant to ensure local authorities would seek alternative forms of public safety regulation without criminalizing street vendors.

This landmark legislation was groundbreaking for the hundreds of people who were labeled as criminals for decades for their entrepreneurship. However, the bill’s passage did not come easy. The decriminalization of street vendors was largely a result of advocacy by the Los Angeles Street Vending Campaign (LASVC), a campaign composed of many women, disabled people, and seniors, along with community-based and advocacy organizations [4]. Meeting in accessible spaces like public buses, crowding city buildings, and structuring cross-racial discourse were all essential in building a grassroots movement that encompassed what it means to be black and brown in America and that had the people power to push for the decriminalization of street vending.

Street Vending in Public Spaces

Credit: KilmerMedia - stock.adobe.com.

“Dirty,” “third world,” and “invasive” are common terms used to describe street vendors by many who seek to criminalize them. As much as it is offensive, it is also often a reflection of an underlying resentment for low-income people, working-class aesthetics, and people or things that otherwise don’t align with an ideal urban landscape that caters to affluent sensibilities.

Common rhetoric that paints street vending in a negative light is often reflective of elites’ disdain for working-class people and others who are viewed as interrupting urban space [5]. Street vendors may be viewed by these elites as visual manifestations of poverty and disorder, which need to be regulated away from public view. Take a comparison between a white young boy selling lemonade to save for a new video game console and a Latino man selling cut fruit on the street to pay for daily necessities – while one is admirable and a form of entrepreneurialism, the other is considered “dirty” or to be “threatening the local economy.” In fact, this comparison was made by Westminster City Councilmember Amy Phan West, who directed city staff earlier this year to ensure the new street vending ordinance would not interfere with lemonade stands while still effectively curbing regular street vending activity.

The conflict between street vending and city officials can be reflective of the battle between a conceptually “modern” city and everyday working-class people like street vendors, in which “the removal of street vendors may also imply the removal of a locality’s character” [5]. In other words, attempts to remove street vendors can be interpreted as attempts to turn cities from vibrant spaces shared and enjoyed by working-class communities to indistinct and impersonal blocks of new development easily marketable to affluent professionals.

It’s important to see current political rhetoric as much more than pro-order or driven by just public health concerns. This kind of rhetoric can convey much more than attempts to try to keep a street clean or regulate the local economy. Even if unintended, rhetoric that frames street vendors as unsanitary or dirty often perpetuates the idea that working-class aesthetics and people should be excluded from public spaces.

Food Accessibility

It is widely accepted that street vending plays an active role in fruit and vegetable accessibility and food security. In fact, those who shop at mobile markets can consume 1.5 times more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t [6]. With increasing visibility and competition amongst them, street vendors have been found to provide lower-priced and more accessible healthy foods.

Creating accessible and affordable forms of buying fresh produce is of high importance for minorities that are more likely to suffer diet-related illnesses and health impacts [7]. Food deserts are the product of under-investment in communities of color that lead to less grocery stores and sources of healthy produce. Prepared foods that are more substantially nutritious than fast food items can also be hard to come by in these areas. Food markets and street vending have been shown to create holistic webs of local relationships with many vendor-customer relationships ending in better prices for fresh produce and better accessibility to them [8].

In a country where poor health is the leading cause of death, food environment and community health are of utmost importance to vulnerable communities. Despite the many challenges they face, through generations of street vending, many working-class communities have managed to develop ways to contribute to local economies while providing lower-cost and diverse healthy foods on the go and on every corner.

[1] Kopetman, Roxana. “After Santa Ana’s Crackdown on Taco Stands, Council Asks California to Amend Its Street Vendor Laws.” Orange County Register, 10 Mar. 2023, www.ocregister.com/2023/03/09/after-santa-anas-crackdown-on-taco-stands-council-asks-california-to-amend-its-street-vendor-laws/.

[2] Elattar, Hosam. “Orange Expands Street Vendor Crackdown, Moves to Impound Equipment.” Voice of OC, 12 July 2023, voiceofoc.org/2023/07/orange-expands-street-vendor-crackdown-moves-to-impound-equipment/.

[3] Farley Elliot, “The History and Politics of Street food Vendors,” Eater, 22 Jul 2015, https://www.eater.com/2015/7/22/9014483/history-and-politics-of-street-food-los-angeles

[4] Hidalgo, LA. “‘Show them how they treat us’: Legal violence in the everyday lives of street vendors.” Lat Stud 20, 194–218 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41276-022-00367-2

[5] Yatmo, Yandi Andri. “Street Vendors as ‘out of Place’ Urban Elements.” Journal of Urban Design, vol. 13, no. 3, 2008, pp. 387–402, https://doi.org/10.1080/13574800802320889.

[6] Peimani, Nastaran, and Hesam Kamalipour. “Informal Street Vending: A Systematic Review.” Land, vol. 11, no. 6, June 2022, p. 829. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3390/land11060829.

[7] Francis, Kaniyaa, and Catherine Brinkley. “Street Food Vending as a Public Health Intervention.” Californian Journal of Health Promotion, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–16, https://doi.org/10.32398/cjhp.v18i1.2450.

[8] Alfonso Morales & Gregg Kettles, Healthy Food Outside: Farmers’ Markets, Taco Trucks, and Sidewalk Fruit Vendors, 26 J. Contemp. Health L. & Pol’y 20 (2010). Available at: https://scholarship.law.edu/jchlp/vol26/iss1/3.

Alejandro Martinez Santos

Alejandro Martinez Santos

Alejandro is a fourth-year Public Health Sciences major at UC Irvine with an interest in medicine and social justice. During his internship at the Harbor Institute through UC Irvine's 2023 Labor summer program, he actively researched immigrant policies and movements in Orange County.