It’s been two years since Chicago last updated its food-truck regulations to allow vendors to prepare food onboard. This was a significant improvement, but there are still some important changes the city can and should make to better respect food-truck owners’ rights and improve food options for residents across the city.
1. Lift the ban on food trucks operating in private lots
Chicago allows food trucks to operate on private property but, strangely, the city forbids them from working on privately owned vacant lots. That’s a mistake; these unused assets could be put to better use as a space for food trucks to operate. Lifting this restriction would present an opportunity for city planners and entrepreneurs to put some of the city’s numerous empty lots to use.
One potential use these lots could serve is to address Chicago’s alleged food-desert problem, as there are few grocery stores selling fresh fruit and vegetables in lower-income communities. Many grocery chains are understandably reluctant to make a large investment in untested, low-income markets. If food trucks were permitted to use private lots, they could leverage their relatively smaller operating costs to bring a mobile farmers market to underserved areas. The possibilities for innovation here are endless; the city should get rid of rules that would make it harder to find creative solutions for addressing food inequities
2. Allow truck sitting times to be extended by Ward
City law limits food trucks to two hours in any given spot in Chicago. Many food-truck operators complain that two hours simply isn’t enough time to work an area; much of this time is used for setup, cleaning and prepping food – not simply selling to customers. But they face pushback from neighborhood residents concerned about not having enough parking spaces available.
But there’s no good reason to think that parking and traffic concerns will be the same in every neighborhood. Population density isn’t uniform across the city, and different regions may weigh the relative importance of parking vs. food options differently from one another. College neighborhoods, such as Hyde Park or Lincoln Park, may want food trucks for four or five hours to cater to large student populations, while two or three hours might be a better fit for a business district. So why not let each area set its own rules? As long a minimum of two hours is granted for any truck in throughout the city, aldermen, in consultation with community members, should have the option to set longer hours.
3. Allow new food truck stands to be set up via petition
There’s been some controversy surrounding how and where the city sets up food-truck stands, and how it can move them with little notice. Instead of leaving the decision up to the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, the city should allow community members to have more of a say in creating spaces for entrepreneurs.
One way they could do this is via petition.
The process for petitioning for an exemption to local liquor moratoriums provides an example of how this process could work. Under those rules, one can transfer a liquor license with the approval of 51 percent of the eligible voters within 500 feet of the premises. With the approval of a majority, or perhaps a supermajority (e.g., two-thirds) of the voters within a 500-foot radius, food trucks should be able to set up a food stand for a limited number of trucks on a city block.
Policy issues sometimes require trade-offs between competing interests, especially where the use of public property is involved. Shifting decision-making from the city to individual communities would allow for better balancing of these interests.