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OUT THERE : Food vendors struggle to survive

November 17, 2009|Maeve Reston

Early on an October evening, their cars began filling a city parking lot on Breed Street, less than a block from well-lighted shops along Cesar Chavez Avenue in the busiest commercial corridor of Boyle Heights.

The street vendors, arriving to sell carne asada, tamales, flautas and steamed tacos, once created a culinary destination known to draw hundreds of customers. But on this night, even as people lined up on the sidewalk, many of the vendors waited by their cars, some concealing their wares in foil-lined trays in their trunks. Like clockwork, a Los Angeles police officer pulled up in a black-and-white cruiser and briskly ordered them to pack up, warning that he would be back to make sure they did.

The impromptu -- and illegal -- nighttime food market drew the attention of Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar more than a year ago after neighbors complained about noise, trash, and crowded sidewalks slick with cooking oil. As the economy soured, nearby businesses selling similar foods also asked the police for help addressing unlicensed vending. Working with Huizar's staff, L.A. County health inspectors and the Los Angeles Police Department began enforcing state food safety laws and the city's ban on street vending, targeting vendors cooking over open flames.

But the crackdown intensified in recent weeks after the city's grand opening of the revamped Hollenbeck police station and as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority prepared to welcome Angelenos from across the city to the Eastside with the Gold Line extension. Frequent visits by police have now scattered the Breed Street vendors, some of whom have been selling there for more than a decade, to quieter, less-profitable corners of Boyle Heights. Several now are putting out word of their new locations on Twitter to a committed following of foodies.

But others are not leaving without a fight. Coordinated by the East L.A. Community Corp., a community organizing group, they protested at City Hall, urging council members to support Huizar's effort to create a hot food farmers market on weekend nights near their old location.

"Help us find a place where we can legally sell in order to avoid being bothered by the police," street vendor Edith Zuniga told council members at a recent meeting. "We are not criminals, we are hardworking and honest people."

Another seller, Humberto Altamirano, reminded council members that many vendors were driven onto the street after losing other jobs: "This is the only way or resource that we have to provide food and support for our children," he said.

Huizar's aides say they have identified money to support the market and are looking for a nonprofit group willing to operate it as early as next year. "I recognize that it's a tough time for people, and we understand that there's always been vendors" in Boyle Heights, Huizar said. "But when you have over-concentration, it starts creating problems, both health and safety concerns."

For years, the city's enforcement of its prohibition on street vending has been haphazard at best. Facing similar requests from vendors in the mid-1990s, the council approved the creation of special vending districts, but it took five years for the first legal sidewalk vending district in MacArthur Park to get off the ground, and now none are operational.

The city's street services bureau advanced a proposal in 2006 for a citywide system of licensing mobile vendors, but it was shelved.

Around the same time, Councilman Tony Cardenas grew frustrated with the city's reliance on overworked L.A. County health inspectors to confiscate food and equipment. After his office fielded calls from parents who said their children had been sickened after eating from illegal carts near schools, he asked city lawyers to explore creating a division of city inspectors who could confiscate illegal food and carts without county inspectors present. Cardenas said he was told it was not feasible. Last fiscal year, the city's street investigators charged 178 people with street vending violations.

"With 10 million people in the county, and 4 million people in the city, it's hard for us to be able to attack the problem," said Cardenas, who created a city-county task force within his district that targeted illegal carts. "All we're able to do is hit hot spots on a temporary basis," Cardenas said.

Terrance Powell, the county health department's director of specialized surveillance and enforcement, said 17 of his inspectors oversee the 15,710 licensed mobile food facilities across the county that range from catering trucks to push carts selling ice cream.

Another team of 10 is devoted to confiscating food and cooking equipment from illegal street vendors, which number at least 15,000 across L.A. County. Last fiscal year, that team conducted 2,300 inspections and confiscated more than 39,000 pounds of food.

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