Food Freedom

California Promised Street Vendors More Freedom. Instead They Got More Rules.

The state’s “reforms” have saddled merchants with oppressively expensive permitting demands.


This week, the Los Angeles Times published an excellent editorial on Los Angeles County's continued and outrageous mistreatment of the city's "iconic" street-food vendors.

The editorial centers on the county's failure to implement California's Safe Sidewalk Vending Act. The much-touted, statewide law, which I touched on after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in September 2018, was supposed to decriminalize and legalize street vending for the estimated 10,000 underground food vendors in Los Angeles County—and others across the state. As the Times editors detail, that hasn't happened in Los Angeles.

"Street vending may be legal in California, but for the vendors selling sliced fruit, tacos and other food items it's nearly impossible to get a permit to operate without fear of penalty, particularly in Los Angeles County," reads the lede. They blame "state and county public health regulations for selling food from a street cart [that] remain so complicated, impractical and expensive that the vast majority of vendors have not—and cannot—get permitted."

Hence, years after the law was passed, L.A. County has only issued permits to around two-percent of the underground vendors who sell there. One of the most onerous requirements to obtain a permit, the Times explains, is the rule that vendors must spend thousands of dollars to buy a needlessly fancy food cart that features "four sink compartments, multiple water tanks for washing cookware and hands, and mechanical exhaust ventilation… which is just not practical for vendors who earn $15,000 a year, on average."

Ya think?

Some of problems implementing the law aren't unique to Los Angeles. California's state food code "bars slicing fruit or reheating previously prepared food at the vending cart, making it impossible for two of the most iconic sidewalk sellers—the fruit cart and the taco stand—from becoming licensed, legal operators," the Times explains. "And vendors are required to contract with a commissary, which is a commercial facility where mobile sellers prepare their food and store their equipment. But the commissaries in the region are designed and priced to accommodate food trucks and they rarely have the kitchen space that street vendors need."

So a vendor could either spend thousands of dollars to secure a permit to sell, say, tacos they make at an expensive or unavailable commissary or, alternately, just skip the permitting process, cook the meat for the tacos at home, and prepare and sell them on the street. Given the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act also rightly reduced criminal penalties for selling food without a permit, there's little incentive for vendors to secure a permit.

What a mess.

As Steven Greenhut wrote in 2018, both advocates for street-food vendors and fans of tacos (and people such as me, who live in both camps) were excited about the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act.

"I was appalled at new stories of a police officer shutting down a street vendor and taking his cash. This should stop such nonsense," Greenhut wrote. He also issued a mild caution, noting "the law gives the locals a lot of power to inspect, permit and limit vending carts, but people who sell and buy street tacos should be happy."

But by the time the law took effect in 2019, its failure in Los Angeles was predictable.

"Los Angeles' ban on street vending officially ends tomorrow," Reason's Scott Shackford wrote in 2019. "But thanks to the way the city is handling the transition, there still will be lots of illegal vendors."

Shackford was right! He compares high permit fees and the bureaucrats who are "almost comically unprepared" to issue them to Los Angeles's ham-handed approach to permitting recreational cannabis dispensaries.

That's a great analogy. But there's an even better one. Indeed, the way the vending law has failed to work is remarkably similar to the fate of the state's Microenterprise Home Kitchen ordinance (MEHKO) law, A.B. 626, which Gov. Brown also signed into law in September 2018. This one was supposed to allow people to sell home-cooked meals to willing customers—either to take away from the cook's home or as part of a sit-down supper club experience. But the requirement that local governments opt in to the law has neutered its potential.

"The lack of appropriate regulations still leaves many experienced cooks in California unable to make and sell food legally," I wrote last year. Even now, only Berkeley and a handful of California counties have opted in.

The taco makers and home cooks who were supposed to benefit from the MEHKO law and the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act are often immigrants, people who are out of work (including chefs who've lost their jobs during the pandemic), stay-at-home parents, and/or people of color. They're the ones who were supposed to benefit most from these laws. Instead, they're the ones who bear the brunt of these laws' failures.

"We need equitable public health standards that promote economic and racial justice," says a lengthy August 2021 report on Los Angeles's failure to implement the street-food law by legal-aid group Public Counsel. "That means prioritizing the needs of low-income entrepreneurs and finally finishing the work of legalizing sidewalk food vending."

In 2018, I lamented the fact "real food freedom in California is still an elusive goal." Three years later, the state may be no closer to that goal.