There’s no right more basic than the right to earn a living to support yourself and your family. And for decades, that’s what street vendors have been trying to do. From elote-cart owners in Little Village to ice-cream carts along North Avenue Beach, entrepreneurs – who are often recent immigrants – have supported themselves by selling a variety of ethnic foods, fresh produce and the like from food carts.
However, it’s Illegal to sell any prepared foods from a street cart in Chicago. Only frozen desserts or uncut, raw produce are permitted to be sold from carts. And there’s a long, sad history of street vendors, especially those in predominantly minority neighborhoods, being harassed by the police, fined, arrested and shut down. Their only crime is earning a living by meeting consumer demand for cheap food.
But street vendors and their supporters are trying to change this. The Street Vendors Justice Coalition worked with Alderman Roberto Maldonado on an ordinance that would finally legalize these businesses in Chicago. The ordinance was introduced to City Council in late May, but no action has been taken on it yet.
Under the proposed rules, vendors would have to pay an annual licensing fee of $100 and prepare all of their food in a licensed kitchen establishment subject to regular inspections. But in exchange for this new regulatory oversight, they would be able to operate without fear of being shut down.
So why the delay? Chicago is often resistant to change and slow to welcome nontraditional businesses. One innovative street business called The BrewHub, a mobile coffee-vending cart that sold iced coffees and teas, tried but was unable to get permits to operate legally in Chicago because of the outdated rules for street vendors. BrewHub owner Sara Travis moved her business to Austin, Texas, instead.
But not everyone has the money to vote with their feet and move to cities with friendlier regulatory regimes. That’s why Chicago is badly in need of reforms that would protect and encourage its most vulnerable entrepreneurs. City Council should take this opportunity to legalize street vending.