Nanny State

California's Bogus War on Food Trucks

The latest baseless attack on mobile food vendors crashes and burns.


Earlier this year California assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) introduced a bill that would have barred every one of the state's beloved food trucks from operating within 1,500 feet of a public school. The bill, the purpose of which was to reduce childhood obesity, pegged food trucks as yet another driver of the obesity epidemic.

Owing to the prevalence of public schools and the greater-than half-mile diameter restriction that such a ban would have imposed, food trucks would have become unwelcome throughout much of the state (as this map of San Francisco demonstrates).

Monning's bill was quickly and widely panned. Reason contributor Kennedy referred to the bill as "an idiotic piece of nonsense." From editorial pages to social media platforms, backlash against the bill was widespread.

Yet Monning did his best not to capitulate to public anger. First, he peeled back the proposed radius restriction from a preposterous 1,500 feet to a merely absurd 500 feet.

Then Monning published an op-ed, titled "Data Behind Limits on Mobile Food Vendors," defending the facts that drove him to introduce the bill. But the op-ed was itself a stunning disclosure, given its almost complete lack of data. (Go ahead and try to find any data at all in the op-ed besides a claim that "50 percent of California's children will have pre-diabetes or diabetes by 2025," a claim Monning doesn't tie to food trucks.)

After reading his op-ed, I wrote to Monning seeking actual data. None was forthcoming.

(Article continues below video.)

The only data I was able to obtain came courtesy of California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA), a nonprofit that sponsored the bill.

Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate with CFPA. Shimada provided me with four sources she said CFPA relied on (and continues to do rely on) to support their restrictions on food trucks.

But where Monning's data appears not to exist, CFPA's data appears incredibly weak and unsupportive.

The article CFPA provided me that appears to be most relevant, "Street Vendors in Los Angeles: Promoting Healthy Eating in L.A. Communities," was written in 2007 by two UCLA graduate students as part of a master of public policy project. Though not the sort of peer-reviewed research that should form the basis of any data-driven legislation, the authors' research nevertheless notes—based on their own observations—"most [students purchasing from vendors] are accompanied by an adult."

Another source of support CFPA sent me is a 2009 Los Angeles Unified School District internal audit report, "Board Motions to Promote Healthy Beverage Sales and Obesity Prevention," that does little to bolster the case for A.B. 1678. The LAUSD report actually notes a comparable percentage of "unauthorized snack foods" sold by the schools themselves (34 percent of schools observed by auditors sold "unhealthy" foods) as by food trucks (43 percent). And the number sold in schools may be higher, depending on other data in the report. The report also includes among the "unauthorized and unhealthy foods" sold by food trucks these two: "corn on the cob" and "juices."

As in the graduate students' report, the LAUSD audit finds parents at the center of many food truck purchases. "[P]arents who were waiting for their children" were the first group of food truck consumers listed.

None of the materials CFPA provided me appear to support the notion that students are leaving school during lunchtime to purchase "unhealthy" food from mobile vendors. In fact, the CFPA reports—including a third that concludes food trucks contribute to "after-school snacking"—note only that vendors appear at schools before and after school.

This disconnect sounds familiar to Matt Geller, head of SoCalMFVA, a group that advocates on behalf of food trucks in the Los Angeles area (and co-author, with me and SoCalMFVA attorney Jeff Dermer, of a forthcoming law-journal article on mobile-food advocacy).

Geller, who was instrumental in leading the fight against Monning's bill, was nonplussed by the lack of available data to support the bill. He pressed both CFPA and Monning for data. But he never received any.

"CFPA could not point to any schools where [mobile vending] was a problem," says Geller. "I found that to be incredibly irresponsible of them to lobby for a bill that would demonize hard working entrepreneurs of the mobile food industry without any data to conclude that mobile vendors were such a huge statewide problem that a state bill was necessary."

So why introduce the bill in the first place? Erin Glenn, head of Asociación de Loncheros, a group launched in 2008 to advocate on behalf of catering food truck owners in Los Angeles, blames "a general laziness on the part of the people pushing the bill to consider all of the impacts that this bill would have on the people of California." Glenn and her also group advocated and lobbied against the bill.

Another advocacy group, SactoMoFo, led by Paul Somerhausen, also fought back against the A.B. 1678.

Rather than laziness, Somerhausen sees incompetence. "I honestly don't think they knew what they were doing," he tells me.

Faced with all this opposition, Monning recently pulled the floundering bill, admitting it "wasn't ready for prime time."

Just how unready? Monning pulled the bill before it "ever even made it to his own committee," notes Somerhausen.

Consequently, what looked like a potential setback for food trucks in California instead turned into both a well-deserved victory for food truck advocates and a cautionary tale against basing legislation on data that appears sketchy or, in some cases, nonexistent.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of culinary freedom.

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  1. Tia Shimada, a nutrition policy advocate with CFPA.

    Nobody move! Baylen dropped a verb and possibly even a direct object on the floor! We don’t want to step on it.

  2. We all know this had nothing to do with the health of the children – it was simply a way to reduce competition for existing businesses and to provide an excuse for future “social cost recapture” fees.

    Arguing the proposal on its’ merits simply suggests that – had they found some studies to support their claims – it would be entirely reasonable for them to pass these sorts of laws.

    Which is BS.

    1. This. Cronyism is alive and well in Commiefornia. The moonbats have totally ruined a once beautiful state.

      When I lived there as a child, I remember the Mexican food vendors with their little food carts on street corners in our neighborhood. Best enchiladas I have ever had. No one bothered them. People trying to make a living like anyone else. Probably patrolled by jack booted thugs now, looking to knock over little kids lemon-aid stands and fine them $5000, for their own good.

      1. Mexican food vendors with their little food carts

        Democrats hate Mexicans, at least those who have the temerity to earn an honest buck.

    2. If there was some evidence they could just have easily have passed a law requiring schools to maintain closed campuses or making it illegal for the trucks to sell to minors.

  3. I think of all the times when I was a kid I would have loved to have some of this food.We were poor and the things we ate were truly horrible at times.I know what being hungery is.Now they worry about to much food and calories.

    1. would have loved to have some of this food

      If they truly cared about child obesity, they’d ban the crap schools dish out. On second thought, maybe the plan if to make school food so bad no one will eat it.

  4. ‘obesity epidemic’

    Whew! We feel so much better knowing this is a disease we caught through no fault of our own, and one we can legislate/regulate away instead of having to acknowledge that we are turning into a nation of sedentary lard-asses.

    1. Yeah, I laugh every time I see that, and think “Man, I bet Ethiopia wishes they had our problems.”

      1. This. If there is an Obesity Epidemic (which I doubt), could we take a week to celebrate that we have produced a society where the commonest dietary problem of the poor is that they are too fat? Is that too much to ask?

  5. Everywhere else in the universe keeps kids on campus during lunch.

    The food truck could be two feet from the school and it wouldnt matter.

    1. I went to school in N.H. and we had an open campus. If I had the time and money, I’d cross the street and get a very unhealthy meal of a sandwich and salty, greasy french fries from one of the many convenience stores in the neighborhood.

      1. We had a closed campus, but our school would sell pizza, cinnamon rolls, and other “healthy” foods. I probably consumed 3,000 calories at lunch every day. Never got fat.

        The best was the mash potatoes and gravy. Even though the gravy had a strange green tinge, it was surprisingly delicious for school food. There was a uranium mine nearby. I wonder…

    2. I doubt it. My school was open campus. We had so many students that closed campus just wasn’t possible, even with 2 separate lunch periods.

  6. This is way many people including libertarians (and rightfully so) want small, better controlled government.

    I hope laws like this don’t pass. And, if they do, I hope the court of appeals turn them over.

    There will always be bad laws proposed/passed. I hope we never destroy the mechanism a revoking laws.

    1. It’s Commiefornia, who is going to stop it from passing? Libertarians? The moonbats have completely taken over the state, outside of small enclaves where there is not enough population to influence elections. The only hope for Cali is that it falls into the sea and puts itself out of misery.

      1. It is the same way here in Communist Maryland.

        I have plenty of Libertarian friends here, and if you look at the state as a whole geographically, it would appear that there are more conservatives and libertarians than libbies. The problem is that the population of inner city Baltimore, on the dem plantation, is more than the rest of the state combined. That said, there are not enough of us to influence elections at the state level. And whenever we do something good at any local level, the busy body jackarses in Annapolis notice it and pounce to pass some crazy state ordinace that effectively overrides it.

        1. When I lived in Maryland it was generally assumed that the Democrat Machine could and would steal any election that mattered. I hope that has changed, but I doubt it.

          A friend of mine once took me to the Stonewall Democratic Club in Baltimore. Tales of ballet boxes stuffed in years gone by were common. It was an experience.

  7. “Drop the lobster roll and put your hands on your head!”

  8. As immoral as the law is, there’s a certain logic. If the school cafeteria food is anything like the swill the served us, not one kid is gonna get fat on that stuff.

  9. Thank god this bill was shitcanned. It was just another chance for the California legislature to kill more jobs. I have a friend who was a waitress at a nice restaurant in Los Angeles. She saved her money, and last year opened a gourmet food truck. She makes more money now than when she was a waitress. She also employs two other people. Later this year, she will open another truck, employing three more people. This is how jobs are created. People using capital to open businesses. Every time some shithead like Monning proposes legislation, it kills jobs.

  10. If I were a parent, I’d prefer my child eat a Kogi taco over whatever cardboard tasting frozen crap school is serving.

  11. how exactly will legislation ever cure health problems?

    1. You! In front of your telescreen, now! Calesthenics!!

    2. Is there any real evidence that there ARE significant and new health problems to be solved. My take is that the “Obesity Epidemic” started handily just after the hight and weight charts were changed. Change the definition of Obese, and there is going to be SOME kind of jump.

  12. Let’s follow the data-free logic here.

    If +/-90% of pre-teen obese children attend public school in Califonia, and public schools are within 1,500 feet of public schools, should we ban public schools in California? Would it reduce childhood obesity? Would it increase educational outcomes? What’s not to like?

    Draw your own conclusions.

  13. The Democratic city of Chicago is waging a similar war against food trucks. They are protecting us For Our Own Good. They claim it’s about our Health and Safety. But they look the other way if the food trucks serve construction workers.
    Apparently they don’t care about Construction Workers Health and Safety. Probably because Construction Workers are dirty, so who-cares-about-them.

  14. Glad that’s done. Now it’d be nice if this piece of crap would die:

  15. If school food tastes the same as when I walked the hallowed halls of high school, I would definitely buy from a vendor rather than eat the stuff that was passed off as wholesome, nutritious food.

    Then again this is CA, home of fruit and nuts, where people still live in La la land and ride unicorns.

  16. OK man I am totally down with that dude, I mean like really.

  17. This has nothing to do with the good or bad of Food Trucks. It is about bad journalism. Or is this is a bad April Fools Joke? So you interview an attorney, as your main witness, who created a bogus internet group that allegely represents the “food trucks” of southern California and you represent this person as an knowledgble person? Good journalism NOT!!!! Are you kidding? Maybe every lawyer should start an entity on the internet and claim to represent a group of alleged “victims.” Good business right? What unique information did the attorney have that warrented his inclusion in this article? How many food trucks did the members of this firm work in or even own? This is total bs and you know it and you still gave this firm free advertisement as if they were food truck experts. How much did his law firm pay you for the “free advertisment?” There is an obvious conflict of interest that you fail to explain in your article. I am amazed that Reason allowed you to publish this free advertisment. I guess good for the attorneys and bad for the public.

    Reason is becoming like every other organization driven by the money they can obtain from advertisment.

  18. I forgot to add: You cannot interview the food truck owners? NO you just interview the attorney who created a group that does not evers represen all of the food truck owners in southern California. Your journalism skills are wanting.

    1. It took me a while to parse this one. I think Franki is referring to the video in the middle of this article which is not part of this story but is a separate-but-related story.

      This story has to do with state-level attempts to keep food trucks away from children, the video has to do with more general efforts to get rid of food trucks altogether on a local level.

      I further think Franki seems to think the lawyer in the video is involved in one of those “on behalf of food trucks but really only to enrich the lawyer” class-action lawsuits instead of being in involved with a group fighting restrictive laws. You can’t file class-action lawsuits against the state – representing food truck operators (or anyone else) against the state is not going to make anybody rich.

      So is it fair to criticize Reason for bad journalism for not giving more room to the food truck owners? Given that the story concerns the legal aspects of the fight over food trucks, no. Lawyers maybe don’t know much about food truck operators, but food truck operators certainly don’t know much about fighting the law.

      So I really am not sure what Franki is bitching about.

      1. I think Franki’s comment may be part of an English as a Second Language (ESL) assignment. The lesson plan probably required the student to read a news article online, and then critique it.

        Otherwise, reading comprehension is not Franki’s strong point.

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