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Opinion: Chicagoans hungry for food carts

A customer stands at a food cart in Oldham, England, in 2011.

Hours before restaurants open their doors in Little Village, Claudia Perez sets up her cart along 26th Street or one of the side streets nearby.Claudia is 62. She came to the United States from Mexico in 1995. For more than 10 years, she has been selling tamales, elotes and horchata out of her food cart to support her family. It’s hard work: She’s up most mornings before the sun preparing batches of what she’ll sell that day. Come rain or shine or snow, Claudia is out in the neighborhood, serving hungry people as they head to work.Claudia is one of nearly 1,500 food-cart street vendors in Chicago. But the city doesn’t welcome the flavors she provides her community.OPINION

The City Council is likely to vote in September on an ordinance to finally recognize food carts in Chicago, putting food carts on a level playing field with other food options in the city, such as food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. It would also help ensure the industry is safe – vendors would have to meet citywide safety standards and prepare food in a licensed kitchen. They would also be subject to inspection by the health department.The Illinois Policy Institute surveyed 200 food-cart vendors across the city, learning what their lives and businesses are like. This research uncovered something long suspected: Food carts could be a boon to Chicago.Chicagoans already love food carts – vendors serve as many as 50,000 meals per day.Vendors know this. If Chicago recognizes the industry, 79 percent of the vendors surveyed said they would expand their business to capitalize on the high demand that already exists.The City Council should take note. Chicago is one of the only major U.S. cities that bans food carts; these businesses are recognized in 23 of the 25 largest cities in the country. If the city embraces food carts, it could see up to 6,400 new jobs and up to $8.5 million in new local sales-tax revenue. This is an easy way to provide additional revenue for a city staring down a billion-dollar budget deficit while helping some of the areas in the city that are hurting the most.Neighborhoods from Little Village to Humboldt Park to Avondale already are home to hundreds of vendors. These communities rally around food-cart culture – kids pick up elotes for an after-school snack, walkers grab champurrado on cool mornings and anyone looking for a delicious lunch knows vendors’ tamales won’t disappoint. People drive from hundreds of miles away to get a taste of Chicago’s food-truck fare.It’s time for the city to recognize this burgeoning industry. Embracing food-cart culture means more revenue for the city and greater access to food throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods. It also means more opportunity for people who want to work hard and make a living as food entrepreneurs.It’s the right thing to do.Hilary Gowins is Managing Editor at the llinois Policy Institute.