Taking to the Streets

By Addie Kapsner

A Victory Dog cart outside the USC Coliseum

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.

Annabel’s food cart outside FIGat7th where she sells bacon wrapped hot dogs, horchata, and watermelon agua fresca
Horchata from Annabel’s cart

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!


Sources:

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/.

Street Vendors: the heart of Los Angeles

by Anya Vincent

It is almost impossible to drive a mile in Los Angeles and not see a street vendor selling food on a sidewalk. They are an essential part to the city’s food culture, and if they were taken away there would be a large gap in its place. The food there is almost always guaranteed to be delicious and inexpensive. Types of food can range from fresh fruit, sold by fruteros, to street hot dogs, found after sporting events, to tacos and pupusas. When visiting most vendors, one can often find a full meal or large portions for five to ten dollars; these often should be double or triple the price that is charged. Street vendors are an essential part to Los Angeles, but this pandemic has hit them hard and the survival rate of their stalls has dramatically decreased.

The food truck I visited

In order to understand what the vendors face, I visited one recently and talked to them about their business. The one I visited is on W 36 St and Vermont, in between the post office and Smart & Final. I have seen them multiple times when driving around the area, and I finally was able to try their food. The cart is run by a woman and man, and unfortunately, I did not ask about their relation to each other. In their cart, they sell tacos, pupusas, quesadillas, and hot dogs, along with drinks. The majority of the food was five dollars or under and was very filling. When I asked them how long they had been there, they mentioned that they had been in that location for 8 months and work from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon. I was shocked they started during the pandemic, especially since a lot of food vendors have been hit extremely hard. They said that there had been less business than usual because there were no students, which led me to think they were around USC campus earlier but in another location; however, I did not have the chance to ask them that by the time my food was ready. I purchased two pupusas with beans, cheese, and chicharron to share with my friend, and they were absolutely delicious. I definitely will be visiting them again, especially during the pandemic.

The pupusas

It is extremely sad that so many of the street vendors have had to close down during the last year. As mentioned in the article in Food and Wine, many vendors had to shut down due to restrictions, and cannot afford to open up again. Those that have remained open have lost around 70% of their revenue as they have less customers. However as restrictions begin to loosen, they can be essential for helping our economy and our cities. As John Rennie Short mentions in his article, they boost small business, provide safe, socially distanced ways to get food, and additionally make cities livelier than they previously were, as foot traffic can help it out. They also provide income for many immigrants and low-income workers. However, in order for this to occur, Los Angeles county needs to help them. Even though street vending has been decriminalized, it is extremely hard for them to meet the impossibly high standards imposed by the city. Just to get set up with permits and health inspections with the carts, costs vendors a sizeable portion of their yearly income. While these steps are very important, the city needs to lower prices and expectations, so vendors can actually sell their products and make a profit. Until then, the most we can do is help them fight for more rights during city council meetings, while also visiting their stalls. The city cannot risk losing their street vendors because losing them will also make the city lose a large portion of itself.


Bautista, Nidia. “Los Angeles Street Vendors Already Had It Tough. Then the Pandemic Hit.” Food & Wine, 24 July 2020, http://www.foodandwine.com/news/la-street-vendors-on-the-toll-of-the-pandemic. 

Short, John Rennie. “La Venta Callejera Hace Más Vivas, Seguras y Justas Las Ciudades, Por Eso Pertenece a La Escena Urbana Post-COVID-19.” The Conversation, 26 Jan. 2021, theconversation.com/la-venta-callejera-hace-mas-vivas-seguras-y-justas-las-ciudades-por-eso-pertenece-a-la-escena-urbana-post-covid-19-143869.

Villafana, Jannette, and Ross, Jack, “FINES AND CONFISCATION: EXPLAINING L.A.’S ARBITRARY STREET FOOD CART LAW THE COUNTY USES TO CRIMINALIZE STREET VENDORS.” L.A. Taco, 15 Mar. 2021

Mercado Olympic – Comida Callejera

Está semana, fui al Mercado Olympic en central Los Ángeles, por recomendación de Bill Esparza. Situado en la intersección concurrida y ruidosa de Olympic y Central, en un barrio predominantemente industrial, el mercado fue fácil encontrar. Inmediatamente después de aparcar mi coche, podía oler carnes a la parrilla, aceite hirviendo, y frutos cítricos. Siguiendo el ejemplo de los otros peatones, crucé la calle sin usando el crosswalk, y empecé a explorar las tiendas.

Situado al este del centro de la ciudad, en el Distrito de Productos, el Mercado Olympic abarca toda una cuadra de la Avenida Central
Situado al este del centro de la ciudad, en el Distrito de Productos, el Mercado Olympic abarca toda una cuadra de la Avenida Central

A causa de mi altura, tenía que agachar la cabeza debajo de cada carpa que cubría la acera, pero este inconveniente fue compensado por la selección de comida en frente de mí. Cada tienda tenía un tipo diferente de comida callejera mexicana, incluso quesadillas, guisados, elotes, tacos, y mucho más. Pasé unos treinta minutos explorando la calle, y eventualmente decidí probar la comida en una tienda que estuvo vendiendo huaraches. Asientos fueron limitado, y por eso, la mujer que prepara la comida me señalo a una larga mesa plástica que ya estaba ocupada por una gran familia mexicana. Sin embargo, eran (más o menos) felices de hacer espacio para mí.

Además de huaraches, esta tienda también vende diferentes tipos de tacos, quesadillas, y aguas frescas
Además de huaraches, esta tienda también vende diferentes tipos de tacos, quesadillas, y aguas frescas

La comida en sí era excelente. Pedí un huarache de carne asada (en el estilo del D.F,) consistió de una tortilla de maíz espeso y grande, cubierto con queso fresco, un gran cantidad de carne, salsa roja, y salsa verde. La carne, mientras correoso, era muy sabroso y picante, y combinaba muy bien con la textura almidonada de la tortilla. También, cada salsa añade su propio sabor único. La salsa verde, compuesto de jalapeño, tomatillo, y el cilantro, añadió un sabor suave, mientras que la salsa roja, compuesto de chiles rojos, añadió una gran cantidad de especia a la comida.

Mi huarache, con carne asada, queso fresco, y salsas verde y roja
Mi huarache, con carne asada, queso fresco, y salsas verdes y rojas

En adición a mi huarache, probé una agua fresca de chia, limón y pepino. Esta bebida fría y fresca definitivamente compensó la especia del resto de mi comida, y las semillas de chia añadió una interesante diferencia textural.

Mi agua fresca de chia, limón, y pepino
Mi agua fresca de chia, limón, y pepino

En general, mi viaje al Mercado Olympic era una buena. Está muy cerca a USC, el precio es excelente, y las opciones por la comida callejera son casi ilimitadas. Fue interesante ver la variedad de gente hispanoamericano vendiendo sus productos allí. Mientras que el mercado es técnicamente ilegal, y sólo opera de las 10 a las 5 en los fines de semana, el viaje vale la pena.

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