Sue Ontiveros: Food carts would be good for Chicago

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Chicago loves patting itself on the back for being a city that embraces food. Yeah, well, if we were such a great foodie city, then why don’t we allow street cart vendors?

A new study by the Illinois Policy Institute that looks at the vendor situation here shows just how behind we are. Among the largest cities in the country that have legalized food carts is Columbus, Ohio. Chicago’s behind Columbus. And Detroit. And Jacksonville, Fla., to name a few. Kinda embarrassing, isn’t it?

For whatever reason, former Mayor Richard M. Daley never seemed able to see the value of food carts and their simple street fare. But this is a new day, people want to be able to get food at all times from a variety of sources, so maybe Chicago finally is ready to legalize the carts. The city council’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection, chaired by Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), is scheduled to meet Wednesday and consider a food cart vendor ordinance. (If you see the carts regularly you might be surprised to learn they are not legal, but they aren’t.)

The Illinois Policy Institute — an independent nonprofit that studies government issues and solutions — spent April through June interviewing some 200 Chicago vendors as it prepared this report, written by Hilary Gowins and Michael Lucci. What they found is that the majority of vendors are middle-aged Latinas trying to support their families.


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People such as Claudia Perez, who for almost 15 years has operated a cart in Little Village, where she sells tamales, rice pudding and hot chocolate. She puts in as many as 14 hours every day except Sunday (she works only for a few hours that day), cooking then heading out by 4 a.m. to sell. Her customers — who include factory and construction workers — seek out her popular Oaxaqueno and she sells about 150 tamales daily. Her grueling schedule has been worth it, though; she is able to pay her bills and got a daughter through college.

She’s out there no matter how crummy the city’s weather, but that’s not the biggest obstacle. It’s steering clear of the police, who sometimes issue tickets.

“Last week I had to move quickly from my location to avoid the police, even though I had clients right there,” she says.

Here we are in a city where it’s not unusual to have the number of shooting victims in a day reach double digits. Yet precious police resources are being used to hunt down middle-aged women and their tamales.

“The city’s taking time out to harass people who are just trying to provide for their families,” says Gowins, one of the report’s authors.

If Chicago legalizes the carts, Gowins’ report figures they will bring in anywhere between $2 million and $8.1 million in new state sales-tax revenue, plus another $2.1 million to $8.5 million in new local sales-tax revenue. Some 79 percent of vendors said if the proposed ordinance — which requires they follow commercial kitchen and food safety rules — becomes law, they’d expand, which means more jobs.

The carts are a way also to get food to those areas where options are limited. They are a “part of the culture” of Humboldt Park and Little Village, Gowins says.

There’s no reason to believe other city neighborhoods wouldn’t embrace them, too. While right now they primarily serve Latin food, if legalized, the food options likely would become more diverse.

Before you’d know it, we’d be as enlightened as Columbus.


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