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Street Food Vendors Cause Controversy

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By Natalie Morin

“You’ve never tried cactus before?” asked the store owner, suddenly overcome with both incredulity and surprise. The quiet—well, until now—owner of Mi Ranchito Market shook his head as he uttered a flurry of quick clicks of mock disapproval with his tongue.

“It’s very good. My wife prepares it very well. The trick is that when she cooks it, she sprinkles a bit of baking soda on it so it isn’t as sticky. You should eat it with eggs. And avocado–especially avocado. Here, you can have one for free. The avocado is very important.”

Abel Vasquez has owned Mi Ranchito Market, a meat and produce market on Central Avenue in South Los Angeles, for 11 years. He knows almost every person who walks into the store by name, so the store has become a place to catch up with old friends.

“The people who come in here, they are my neighbors, so we talk,” said Vasquez, “And sometimes I know it’s hard to complete money and pay, so I say to them, ‘You pay next time.’”

The rest of the employees of Mi Ranchito Market warm the welcome atmosphere further, as they consist of Vasquez’s sons and nephews. One of his nephews, Manuel Vasquez, is a 22-year old geography major at California State University, Northridge who comes into the store from time to time to help his uncle run the store. Manuel Vasquez emulates the same friendliness as his uncle, but seems to have a bigger thirst to step out the boundaries of his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

“Why do you think I’m a geography major?” said Manuel Vasquez. “I want to get out of here–I want to travel!”

His sense of adventure, though, is not solely limited to cities on a map: It also lies in his stomach. In addition to his customers, Vasquez is close with some of the street vendors that set up their stands in front of Mi Ranchito Market. Lloyd Moreno has been selling grilled corn and sweet potatoes in front of the market for close to three months. Vasquez has taken a liking to him as Vasquez’s parents and Moreno himself come from the same Mexican state of Puebla.

Street vending is illegal in the Los Angeles County, mostly because of the health risks that food that hasn't been inspected poses to the community. Ravinder Cheema, a restaurant owner and strong advocate against unlicensed street vendors, believes that the health risks associated with street vendors are too severe to be ignored.

“When a food item is pre-packaged, the health risk is not so high,” said Cheema. “But the health risk becomes very high when it’s prepared in a home where there’s no sanitation, there’s no one able to inspect it, there’s no monitoring in place…And what kind of personal hygiene does the person preparing the food have?”

Vasquez, on the other hand, feels as if people hyperbolize the dangers of eating street food.

“I’ve never gotten sick from any street vendors' food. I have an auntie who five years ago had her own taco stand. I would see the things that go on in her kitchen and I think it’s very clean. They take it seriously so they’re not going to do anything dirty, because all they want is to get paid and sell their food. If your stomach isn’t accustomed to the food, then you might have problems.”

Both Vasquez and Cheema do agree though that the street vendors create economic problems for established restaurants.

“I’m here, I’m paying public health permits, I’m paying worker’s comp, I’m paying payroll taxes…You name it,” said Cheema. “I’m contributing to the system. It’s not fair to me as a business owner to be sharing my clientele with a person who has paid no permits and who is a problem health-wise.”

“Of course, when I’m working at the market, my business side says that I don’t want [street vendors] there,” said Vasquez. “People see them first and go and buy their products instead of buying our products.”

But, Vasquez feels a sense of solidarity and community for these vendors–like Moreno–with whom he and his uncle frequently interact.

“On the other hand, they’re from my culture too. I’m sure that even some of the cops down here have relatives who do the same thing. For example, my cousin is a police officer and he’s kind of related to some of them. We’re faced with making the judgment of whether we should kick them out or not. They are family, so it’s kind of hard.”

Moreno was asked to move off the street by law enforcement on several occasions, but stopping his vending would mean cutting off one of his few sources of income.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to establish their own business in the right way, so this is the easiest way to have our business,” said Moreno. “Right here I’m not bothering anybody and people can see what I do.”

Though the issue of street vendors has sparked significant controversy in the South Los Angeles community, coalitions such as the ones to which Cheema belongs, notably the Central Avenue Business Association (CABA) and the Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD), are trying to find solutions that focus on educating vendors rather than displacing them.

“We’re trying to come up with a way where we can have illegal vendors come in and we can train them on how to become legal,” said Cheema. “You have to be connected with the commissary, you have to get your California Food Handler’s license, you have to learn how to prepare food safely, etcetera. But for now we don’t have enough funding.” Even if a program like this were to be fully funded though, Vasquez believes that the street vendors wouldn’t take the program seriously.

“If they had to pay for it, they probably won’t do it,” said Vasquez. “I mean, honestly, culturally, we just don’t respond to ‘Okay, yeah, let’s go learn how to do this or that.’ If we know how to handle and cook food, we know how to do it. Why should we have to go take a class about it?”