[From the Director’s Desk] LA Street Vending Campaign as a Pathway to Food Justice


By Clare Fox, Director of Policy and Innovation at the LA Food Policy Council

On February 19th, the LA Food Policy Council (LAFPC) partnered with East LA Community Corporation and other organizations in the LA Street Vendor Campaign to host our first “Network” gathering of 2015. LAFPC hosts “Network” meetings on a bi-monthly basis to convene change makers for networking, capacity and movement building. Combining dynamic presentations, collaborative activities and networking, the Network connects advocates, entrepreneurs, community members, and policy makers to help coordinate the activities and policy initiatives of LA’s Good Food movement.

In 2015, we dedicate the Network space to strengthening the work of the Working Groups of the Food Policy Council (learn more about the Working Groups and the campaigns of our partners). We began this year with the topic “LA Street Vending: A Pathway to Food Justice. A Deeper Look at Participatory Food Policy Making.” The three parts of the title speak to the three major tenets of this discussion.

LA Street Vending.

Los Angeles is often celebrated for its vibrant street food culture, and yet vending food on city sidewalks is illegal and many vendors face harsh repercussions. According to the City, Los Angeles is home to an informal economy of estimated 50,000 sidewalk vendors that bring in $504 million a year (food and merchandise). Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Curren Price have introduced a motion to consider a citywide permit system for sidewalk vending, along with special incentives for healthy food carts to help expand access to healthy food across the city. In December, the City Council approved a “framework” that informs the way this new program might work and set the stage for an official ordinance.

A Pathway to Food Justice.

What does street food vending have to do with creating a local food system that is healthy, affordable, sustainable and fair? Here at the LA Food Policy Council, we are proud to work alongside advocates fighting to ensure that every Angeleno enjoys equal access to healthy food. Some of you may ask: Aren’t street vendors selling unhealthy food? How will this help Los Angeles tackle the crisis of health disparities we see across low-income communities and communities of color?

Great question! We believe legalizing street vending can help increase access to fresh food where it’s needed most.  It takes years and lots of capital to build new grocery stores (though that is important too!). Street vending is a nimble, mobile and low-capital business that can meet the nutritional needs of the community immediately.

That said, we also invite our partners to consider the meaning of “food justice” from a lens that transcends beyond nutrition-related disease and healthy food access. In our view, “food justice” includes supporting local food economies that provide pathways out of poverty (ending poverty definitely improves public health!), supporting the self-determination of food workers and decriminalizing low-income, working people. Food justice also looks like supporting food entrepreneurs who preserve and create cultural traditions, as we believe many street vendors do.

We chose the phrase “A Pathway to Food Justice” intentionally. Pathway implies a road traveled, a journey towards something. Participating in policy work is a process that will inevitably change and grow us- that’s a good thing because that’s how we all step into our leadership!  Just as walking a pathway may include both smooth and bumpy terrain, the movement toward food justice and policy change is lined with challenges, educational opportunities and discoveries that will allow us to become more fully-expressed as change makers.

A Deeper Look at Participatory Food Policy Making1

Policy impacts all our lives. Because of the living legacy of systemic oppression (racism, classism, sexism, for example), policy impacts some lives in more severe ways that others. When thinking about a new street vending policy for the City of LA, we wanted to center the experiences of the people who are most impacted by a lack of regulation: street vendors themselves.

In the LA Street Vendor campaign, street vendors are articulating and advocating for a policy change that honors their contributions to the city. Street vendors are meeting with City Council members, providing public testimony, speaking to the media and working with lawyers to develop model ordinance language. They are exercising their leadership in a dynamic, honest way that is rooted in their experience and struggle, which provides a kind of expertise needed in the policy development process.

In many ways, the LA Street Vendor Campaign uses the concept of participatory policymaking, a framework that serves to engage the realities and knowledge of marginalized groups in policy development and builds their own capacity in the process. Over 50 organizations in the LA Street Vendor Coalition have committed to ground the policy campaign in the experiential knowledge and leadership of street vendors. This commitment marks a departure from traditional policy processes, which tend to elevate data-driven analyses and the voices of academic or “professional” actors. Quantitative research that demonstrates social inequities make for compelling arguments, but often leaves out the perspectives and voices of the most vulnerable or impacted communities, which can then further marginalize communities from public forums.

Participatory policymaking is used in many different ways across the world, but strives to be a more democratic, equitable, and inclusive strategy to catalyze social change. At the end of the day, it’s about power, and what LA Street Vendor Campaign has done to support and activate vendor leadership serves as a model for other movements striving to turn the tide towards justice—by repositioning where policy influence emerges, transforming what counts as ‘relevant’ knowledge, and redistributing power to enable authentic stakeholder participation. It requires re-thinking the entire process of developing a policy proposal: from data collection, to planning, to coalition building, to the language of meetings and printed materials, to the timeline of activities, to the kind of internal reflection needed among allies and partners.

Our sincere hope is that that the lessons of the LA Street Vendor movement will prove valuable for other kinds of food policy efforts and help build a more inclusive Good Food movement. Whether you are working in government, community projects or business endeavors, we hope the insight shared will help you be more effective as we move toward broader and deeper understanding of what food justice can look like.

If you would like to learn more about how you can support street vendors to create a legal permit system, please do not hesitate to contact the LA Street Vendor Campaign. We need Good Food allies to show up to community meetings and City Council to support this policy.

1. Our definition of participatory policymaking (PPM) was summarized by Anisha Hingorani and inspired by the work of international PPM practitioners. For additional insight on this unique policy tool, see here and here.