By Addie Kapsner
Street vendors, typically found on sidewalks, in public parks, or even on freeway off-ramps and street medians, have long been a staple in Los Angeles culture. As a USC student, football games would be incomplete without the sweet smell of sautéed onions from the endless street vendors selling “Victory Dogs” at the gates of the Coliseum, and I likely spent more money at the fruit cart on Hoover street outside the USC Village than at the Village itself. Even in a hypergentrified area such as the USC University Park Campus, street vendors contribute to the Los Angeles culture in ways that overpriced smoothie restaurants or the seven Starbucks (Google Maps, 2021) within a few blocks of the campus cannot match.
Furthermore, Los Angeles is known to have several food deserts, defined as areas without fresh produce or other healthy foods due to the lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or other healthy food sources, that result in families needing to travel often miles to find healthy food. These areas, the majority being in South La, East LA, and the Bell Gardens area (Moses, 2019), are often highly saturated with fast food, convenience stores, liquor stores, and otherwise unhealthy sources for food due to the decades of business disinvestment that pushed grocery stores out, and chain restaurants in. Enter street vendors. Street vendors provide food deserts with much needed fresh fruit, homemade meals, and healthier options at lower costs for families that need it the most, acting as somewhat of a lifeline for these food deserts (Raman, 2020).
The City of Los Angeles, despite the street vendors having an importance in the city’s culture, has historically not made it easy for street vendors to stay in operation. The City of LA requires that street vendors have permits from the LA County’s Health Department, which are expensive (totaling to be around $1,651) and often unobtainable for those with smaller food carts such as the carts selling hot dogs or pupusas, and without a permit, the city frequently gives out citations with fines between $200 and $1000 (Ribeiro, 2020). Out of over 50,000 street vendors (Sarmiento, 2015), 10,000 to 12,000 of which sell food items (Portnoy, 2017), very few are able to obtain a permit, and those who do are likely the bigger food trucks that are more likely to participate in the gentrification of LA and often have higher priced items (Sarmiento, 2015). For Latino vendors, police harassment, citations and fines, and even imprisonment have been a risk for years, further contributing to the discrimination Latinos face on a daily basis in the United States.
Even during the pandemic, the City of LA has not stopped giving out these fines as they did with parking violations, giving out over 640 citations in 2020 (Villafana & Ross, 2020), putting thousands of street vendors at risk of financial insecurity due to a lack of work. With new health codes needed due to the pandemic, more street vendors found themselves either out of work or with more citations, and federal relief loans and outdoor dining programs excluded street vendors (Bautista, 2020), street vendors were at an unfair disadvantage.
Many street vendors who did manage to stay open during the pandemic, such as Annabel who sells bacon wrapped hot dogs and agua frescas outside FIGat7th in Downtown Los Angeles, struggled to sell enough products to make a fair living due to decreased amounts of customers. Annabel, who has been a street vendor in Los Angeles for 15 years, stated that she moved to FIGat7th at the start of the pandemic and has been selling there for around a year now, in hopes that the increased foot traffic would make up for the decreased demand for street vendors.
Annabel and I chatted about her experiences as a street vendor in Los Angeles and her home of Oaxaca, Mexico which she immigrated from 15 years ago. She seemed pleased that a customer wanted to know about her story and was willing to speak in Spanish with her, as I would guess this did not happen much in the heavily gentrified area of DTLA where she makes a living. I bought a very delicious horchata from her, which was the perfect combination of of smooth, sweet and cinnamony deliciousness, and the portion size was more than generous.
It’s important to support street vendors, especially during COVID-19, as they have so many disadvantages against them, so make sure to visit, check up on, and buy from the street vendors in your area, and don’t forget to start a conversation and tip if you are able!
Bautista, Nidia. “Los Angeles Street Vendors Already Had It Tough. Then the Pandemic Hit.” Food & Wine, Meredith, 24 July 2020, http://www.foodandwine.com/news/la-street-vendors-on-the-toll-of-the-pandemic.
Moses, Elijah. “Food Desert Analysis in Los Angeles, CA 2019.” ArcGIS StoryMaps, 30 Oct. 2019, storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/1be4915ebead44e59b7f7dad1ab704db.
Portnoy, Sarah. “L.A.’s Street Vendors Aren’t Giving Up the Fight for Food Cart Legalization.” LA Weekly, 25 Jan. 2017, http://www.laweekly.com/l-a-s-street-vendors-arent-giving-up-the-fight-for-food-cart-legalization/#:~:text=Credit%3A%20Danny%20Liao-,L.A.’s%20Street%20Vendors%20Aren’t%20Giving%20Up%20the,Fight%20for%20Food%20Cart%20Legalization&text=D%C3%ADaz%20found%20all%20manner%20of,insect%20eggs%2C%20even%20iguana%20meat.
Raman, Nithya. “Once Again, LA Has Failed Its Street Vendors.” Eater LA, Eater LA, 21 Apr. 2020, la.eater.com/2020/4/21/21229760/street-food-coronavirus-at-risk-los-angeles.
Ribeiro, Norma. “Los Angeles Street Vendors Demand End to Citations.” NBC Los Angeles, NBC Southern California, 22 June 2020, http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/los-angeles-street-vendors-demand-end-to-citations/2384392/.
Sarmiento, Hugo. “The Spatial Politics of Street Vending in Los Angeles.” UCLA: Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 1 Feb. 2015.
Villafana, Janette, and Jack Ross. “L.A. Street Vendors Are Caught between COVID and the Law.” Salon, 2 Dec. 2020, http://www.salon.com/2020/12/02/la-street-vendors-are-caught-between-covid-and-the-law_partner/.