A Fresh Look at Mobile Vending
Mobile vending is loosely defined as selling food out of any portable vehicle, including trucks, carts, trailers, roadside kiosks, and stands. Mobile vendors are common in almost every community, whether as taco trucks in Los Angeles, hot dog carts in New York City, fruit stands on rural roadsides, or ice cream trucks on neighborhood streets.
In underserved neighborhoods unlikely to attract a large grocery store, mobile vending is one way to increase access to healthy foods. Unlike supermarkets, mobile vending businesses can travel deep into areas where zoning laws may bar larger retail food establishments. Mobile vendors can also adjust their inventory quickly to fit the unique cultural demands of the community.
But a major problem for nutrition advocates is that often these vendors sell food that is unhealthy, even if it is affordable. The nutritional profile of the food is not a top priority for mobile vendors, who may be more focused on overcoming obstacles to operating their businesses.
Fortunately, some communities have recently begun finding ways to regulate mobile vending in a way that promotes a healthier food retail environment.
Exploring New Possibilities in Mobile Vending Policy
Local governments can pursue a number of additional ways to encourage healthy mobile vending without burdening existing vendors. For instance, local laws and regulations can create certain allowances for vendors that sell healthier food. A city might adopt an ordinance that allows only healthy food vendors to locate along designated “safe routes to schools.” Or it might create an exception to an existing ordinance that restricts vendors from operating close to schools or parks, granting healthy food vendors an allowance to operate in these otherwise restricted areas. Likewise, if the local law requires vendors to relocate after a certain amount of time, local governments might enact an exception allowing vendors of healthy foods to stay in place.
Enforcing these new healthy mobile vending regulations may call for additional resources, but there are creative ways to address this issue as well. A city might establish a different class of more visible permits for healthy mobile vendors to display, making it easier for law enforcement to determine which vendors are eligible to take advantage of any benefits. Local governments also could encourage and empower community members, concerned parents, and advocates to report violations so that law enforcement can appropriately respond.
Offering vendors incentives to sell healthier food is another way to encourage healthy mobile vending. Cities or counties might give vendors selling healthier foods small business training, start-up loans or grants, or access to government-sponsored community events for free or at a substantially reduced cost. Local government also could help match vendors with schools and churches that have health department–approved, commercial-grade kitchens that are not used every day. Access to a commercial kitchen could significantly increase vendors’ capacity to provide healthier food.
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