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Food Trucks and Fruit Carts: How Mobile Vending Can Create Greater Access to Healthy Foods

posted on Tue, Sep 3 2013 11:49 am by Song Choi Betzler

The trend in mobile vending has spurred a food truck craze that’s not only popularizing innovative cuisine such as Korean tacos, but also increasing access to food choices. With its greater flexibility, mobile vending can go beyond bringing tasty meals to office parks — it can be a tool to bring healthy food options and increase access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. Some cities have already initiated programs and incentives to increase mobile vending in certain areas. In 2008, New York City implemented Green Carts to sell whole fruits and vegetables in locations with limited access to healthy foods in hopes of increasing consumption. The city reserves 1,000 permits specifically for these carts. Kansas City provides discounted vending permits and allows wider local access to vendors who sell a certain percentage of healthy foods. These programs show an increased interest by local governments in using mobile vending to provide nutritious options to their communities; however, there are a number of factors that can make it difficult for similar programs to propagate.  

Mobile vending is usually governed at the local level, and cities and counties can differ drastically in how they approach mobile vending. For example, Chicago legalized produce stands and amended an ordinance to allow an unlimited number of produce carts in certain city locations; in Clark County, NV, street vendors are considered “illegal vendors” and consumers are warned of health risks and criminal activities associated with them.

Mobile vendors can run into challenges before they even hit the streets.  Obtaining a permit can be difficult: New York City’s 2011 report on Green Carts noted that over 2,000 people were on the waiting list to obtain a permit. Furthermore, vendors must procure their own carts or trucks that meet city requirements, which vary from city to city, making startup costs substantial.

There are additional hurdles once vendors are ready to do business. They may be restricted to specific locations — some cities such as San Antonio ban mobile vending near schools. Even with proper permits, vendors report being ticketed with minor infractions, making the carts more difficult to maintain. And, finding proper storage/commissaries as required by city vending laws can be difficult.

Mobile vending can be an effective way to promote healthy eating, and a number of measures can be taken by local governments to create more access. They can provide vendors with clear mobile vending laws and guidance to ensure that vendors will not be hit with costly fines. Cities can allow vendors to partner with community health clinics, parks, recreation centers and organizations that provide services for low-income communities to operate near those areas. Research indicates mobile vendors can be used to increase healthy food consumption in school-age children; therefore, local governments that ban mobile vending near schools should reconsider and allow vendors who sell nutritious foods.

Allowing healthy food vendors to receive payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) would create even more access for low-income populations. The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture’s Mobile Market, a non-profit mobile farmers’ market in the Washington D.C. area that accepts all forms of payments, found that more than 40 percent  of their sales consisted of payments from SNAP and WIC benefits. New York City currently supplies qualified Green Cart vendors with a free wireless Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) terminal.

Mobile vending can’t be an all-in-one solution to healthier communities, but it can be an important tool. Mobile vendors can help fill the gap in the absence of nutritious food options in low-income neighborhoods. Through mobile vending laws, local governments can help change the food landscape and positively impact public health.  

This blog post was prepared by Song Choi Betzler, J.D., M.P.H., Legal Fellow at the Network for Public Health Law — Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. This blog post does not represent the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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