Chicago pushcart vendors make renewed push to become legal

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Pushcart food vendors who are as much a part of warm-weather Chicago as sidewalk cafes are making a renewed push for the city to sanction their activities and stop turning  hard-working immigrants into criminals.

Two years after the City Council legalized mobile food trucks with cooking on board, vendors have banded together with community organizations and drafted an ordinance — one that was worded conservatively, to minimize the city’s inspection burden.

The so-called Street Vendors Justice Coalition has also been meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Department of Public Health in hopes of persuading the mayor to sign on to a pushcart ordinance that has eluded the City Council and Chicago mayors for decades.

Chicago remains one of the nation’s only major cities that prohibits street vendors from selling anything more than frozen desserts and uncut fruits and vegetables. Cooked food or cut fruits and vegetables are strictly off-limits.

That, however, hasn’t stopped plenty of vendors from operating outside the law, selling tamales, tacos, hot dogs and other food from push carts. 

Beth Kregor, director of the University of Chicago Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, said past efforts to legalize pushcart vendors have failed, in part, because they were overly ambitious.

“The changes we’re proposing are incremental. They’re conservative. We’re not asking the city to inspect carts and license them to cook outside. We want people to be allowed to sell food they’ve made in a licensed kitchen or bought from someone who made it in a licensed kitchen,” she said.

“The city has concerns about its capacity to inspect and monitor carts all over the city. This would allow the city to inspect and review the kitchens themselves. We’ve had really positive conversations with the Department of Public Health and have been informed that the mayor is interested in this issue and the possibility that food carts could bring healthier food options and fresh food to neighborhoods all over the city.”

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on the ordinance.

Kregor was hard-pressed to explain why a gourmet capital of the world with “so many immigrants and culinary traditions” would make it illegal to sell food from pushcarts that could provide an oasis in the city’s food deserts.

“We’re hoping the City Council will see quickly that an effort to legalize street vendors would tie together so many policy commitments the city has made,” Kregor said.

“If they don’t, we’ll be stuck where people who do sell food on sidewalks are not inspected or respected by the city, try to earn an honest living, but are scared every day that they’ll be arrested for selling cut fruit or tamales.”

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, did not hold out much hope for the renewed push.

“It could be a very difficult issue for the whole city to address because there are so many different interests and different perspectives from aldermen and the communities they represent—whether they want them or don’t want them. I’d be wary of it. It’s not an issue that could be easily looked at right now,” Solis said.

“We have so many other, more pressing issues: the budget, the violence. This would be more of a distraction that, I don’t think would go anywhere.”

Over the years, the City Council has made several failed attempts to regulate pushcart food vendors, only to drop the issue like the political hot potato that it is.

In 1997, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed a crackdown, only to back off after being branded a “racist” by Mexican-American street vendors who accused him of using “Gestapo” tactics in a “hate tirade against Mexicans.”

A few years later, Daley tried again, this time, with all seven of the City Council’s Hispanic aldermen as co-sponsors.

“We have a responsibility to do something. These are working-class folks who are trying to make a living,” said Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) said then.

Solis added, “The economy is bad. Everybody is feeling the pinch, and the vendors are at the bottom of the pyramid.”

It didn’t work. Vendors complained, and Hispanic aldermen responded by demanding that the crackdown be softened by expanding the menu of allowable food items and dropping a restriction that would have prohibited pushcarts from operating in residential neighborhoods and within 200 feet of schools, restaurants and places of worship. That prompted Daley to get the issue off his plate entirely.

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