Urban planners like to discuss heavy things – roads, buildings, cars, trains. Food, though an integral part of humans’ lives, generally doesn’t enter into the equation as more than a footnote. This may be because food service is governed by different departments than buildings, streets, and vehicles, or perhaps because the regulation of food has acquired a quasi-scientific veneer that planners are afraid to impinge on. But that might be a mistake, considering how strongly food fits into the urban fabric of cities and how unlivable a place can be if it lacks the kind of food that people can afford and pick up on a whim.
Though cheap and filling and an integral part of cities, towns, and villages around the world, street food in the United States has traditionally been thought of as dirty and backward. Twin Cities food magazine Heavy Table traces Minneapolis’ lack of street food to turn-of-the-century local regulations which regulated vendors out of existence with onerous fees and requirements, and outright bans in many high-traffic areas. The magazine ties the demise of street food in the Midwest to “the advent of automotive culture,” and notes the “uncomfortable whiff of pervasive institutional racism” that dogged the mostly-immigrant peddlers of bratwurst and tamales.
Street food’s reputation has been on the mend, though. Urban foodies have embraced it, Anthony Bourdain has championed it on his Travel Channel show, and Top Chef contestants have been challenged to cook it. Cities across America are throwing street food festivals – an urban take on the quintessentially-American county fair. In the late ’90s, formidable public opposition forced Rudy Giuliani, who was supported by established restauranteurs and local business groups, to reconsider plans to ban food vendors from hundreds of blocks of Manhattan streets. Even urban planners are getting in on the act, with respected Harvard economist Ed Glaeser publishing an op-ed in the Boston Globe the other day championing Boston’s food trucks.
But despite the resurgence of interest in street food, local regulations still thwart would-be vendors. Glaeser cites “complex licensing and zoning regulations” in the case of Boston, but such restrictions apply to most of America. Police in San Francisco’s Mission District, home to one of the nation’s most vibrant street food scenes, have been cracking down on vendors who haven’t shelled out $1,000+ for the proper permits and licenses and untold thousands for approved equipment. In Los Angeles, Reason.tv has noted an underground industry of bacon-wrapped hot dot vendors who serve a product that the city has jailed others for selling. Even legal vendors are at risk, as evidenced by last week’s call by restauranteurs in the trendy DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan to shutter the two-year-old Latino market that takes place in a local park on weekends. The food may have changed since the 19th century, but the arguments against street food – it’s unfair competition, it’s not clean, it’s run by illegal immigrants – have not.
Of all the charges against street food vendors, the one that’s had the most staying power is cleanliness. If one views health in terms of code violations, a study (.pdf) has confirmed that many rules, from wearing gloves while preparing food to washing hands, are indeed broken routinely. But despite these rampant rule violations, the study’s authors concede that no hard data links eating street food to higher rates of illness than eating at home or in restaurants. And anyone who’s worked in the industry knows that even legal restaurants aren’t exactly paragons of rule-following, either. In fact, since street food vendors are not hidden from their customers by walls like restaurant cooks, consumers may actually have more information about cleanliness, and may be in a better position to pick food that lives up to their standards.
Aside from street food sold openly in busy city centers, another common category of low-cost food includes the many unlicensed, clandestine restaurants in America’s black urban ghettos. Around since at least the Great Migrations of blacks out of the South, these establishments sit at the margins of society, serving low-cost meals but kept from the light of day by zoning and health rules, compounded by a longstanding mistrust of government. Tyler Cowen has rightly noted how few restaurants one sees as one drives through neighborhoods southeast of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, but women selling soul food out of their homes or in local meeting places like barbershops appear quite often in Off the Books, Sudhir Venkatesh’s ethnography of the underground urban economy.
Cooking food is a skill many people already have and can be done with equipment they already own, but health and zoning regulations force licensees to rent commercial kitchens and vend only in approved areas. Frustrated by the restrictions and short on cash, many people decide to forgo the licensing process altogether and take their chances on the black market. Though they avoid official taxes, they still have to pay off cops and local gangs, and their businesses are much more precarious than legal restaurants, themselves not known to be the most stable of enterprises. Their plight and very existence are ignored by the media, with the Washington Post apparently believing that yuppies and hipsters opened the first illegal restaurants in the US around 2004, with meals costing, at the low end, $35 a head. Unable to advertise too widely or take out loans, few of these truly underground cooks rise above the station of ghetto entrepreneur, perpetuating the intense insularity of the ghetto economy that Venkatesh describes in his book, not to mention the acute lack of affordable food in many black urban ghettos. And the sad irony of the health rationale for banning home-cooked food is that while soul food definitely isn’t the healthiest cuisine, the legal alternatives – junk food, fast food, and an extra-greasy ghetto take on Chinese food – make it look like organic arugula. Put another way, occasional food poisoning beats chronic obesity.
As the center of much social interaction, abundant and free markets in food are critical to the success of a city. Cheap food is especially important to low-wage workers whose workplaces don’t have refrigerators and microwaves, and an abundance of sit-down restaurants doesn’t negate the need for lower-cost alternatives. The safety of street and home-prepared food should be studied more deeply – for actual outcomes, not just code violations – and if they are found to be relatively safe, restrictions on their operation should be relaxed.