Food carts push closer to legalization | WBEZ
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Advocates say new food cart rules taste bittersweet

This week, Chicago Alderman Emma Mitts did something she’d never done before: She ate her first elote, the grilled corn on the cob that’s a popular street food in Mexico.

“A little hot, but it was good, and I see why the kids like it,” she said at a City Council hearing Wednesday.

But that bite of corn on the street wasn’t just tasty — it was also illegal.

According to advocates, there are nearly 2,000 vendors pushing carts of fresh fruit, elotes and other snacks around Chicago, despite laws forbidding it. But Wednesday, a City Council committee passed an ordinance that’s long been in the works to not only license these vendors, but to punish those who operate illegally.

Sponsoring Alderman Roberto Maldonado (a self-proclaimed fan of elotes) called the License and Consumer Protection Committee's support for his ordinance “historic.”

“At a time when the national debate has turned toward demeaning our immigrant population, we must strengthen our laws to bring our immigrant entrepreneurs out of the shadows and give them the respect and legitimacy they deserve,” Maldonado said.

The ordinance would legitimize most of what push cart vendors do already. It would allow them to sell fresh fruit or food on carts around the city’s neighborhoods, as long as they take classes, get permits and pay fees: $350 for a business license and more than $300 in shared kitchen fees over two years.

But what bothers advocates most is the provision that forbids vendors from preparing food on the cart, meaning all food would have to be cooked, cut, seasoned, packaged and sealed before vendors leave licensed kitchens.

“I think we’ve reached a great compromise. Like always no ordinance is [ever] perfect but it’s a work in progress, something that we’re all willing to start with,” Maldonado said. 

The prepackaged and pre-seasoned provision comes as a response to concerns from the Chicago Department of Public Health. Although the department acknowledges there has never been a single reported incident of foodborne illness connected to the food carts, it insists that on-cart prep is dangerous.

The agency is “committed to ensuring the food Chicagoans eat is safe…[Because] food carts are not required to have hand washing capabilities on them. Having food that is not prepackaged would be unsanitary and unsafe,” the department said in a statement.

Still, for many, the fresh preparation and customization of condiments (chile, salt, lime, cheese) are part of the appeal.

Vicky Lugo, who serves as the vice president of the Association of Mobile Vendors, knows the rules are less than ideal.

“I am not in favor of this product being pre-cut because products that are pre-cut and sold in stores are not fresh,” she says. “But right now [vendors] will take whatever the city will approve because as it is now there is no license for them.”

The plan, says Lugo and others, is to start here and then move toward fresher options later.

“We are trying to push for a last prep step where vendors could possibly cut the fruit at the cart and for the corn add the mayo and cheese and that stuff,” she said.

Beth Kregor of the Institute for Justice on Entrepreneurship has been working on this issue for years. She notes that the licensing rules, if passed by the full council, could apply to all sorts of foods.

Vendors would be allowed to sell pretty much anything they, or others, prepared — as long as they were packaged in a licensed kitchen. During the hearings she spoke eloquently about the measure’s potential.

“We should pass this ordinance because those vendors will be the next immigrant who earns her way in this country,” she said. “ The next business owners serving up culture, cuisine and commerce in our community spaces, one customer at a time. And the next parent who built a better life for his child by working hard and following the rules.”

A recent survey by the Illinois Policy Institute estimated that the 1,500 food-cart vendors in Chicago make an estimated $35.2 million in annual sales.

The ordinance still needs the full city council’s approval, which is scheduled to meet next Thursday. The law would then take effect 30 days after passage.

Monica Eng covers food and health for WBEZ. Follow her at @monicaeng. Lauren Chooljian covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian.

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