Food Freedom Fight Sizzles from Coast to Coast

For many working-class Americans, including hardworking immigrants, street vending is a valuable opportunity to support their families while providing the public with something people deeply value—abundant variety of delicious, convenient food. But that opportunity is constantly undermined by onerous and unnecessary red tape in cities and states across the country.

In Manhattan, The New York Times profiled Bangladeshi immigrant Kabir Ahmed, who leaves home each day at 6 a.m. to work a food cart for hours at a time in order to make ends meet. Although the lines surrounding Kabir’s cart during the city’s lunchtime rush might suggest food vending is a lucrative business, the government imposes a byzantine web of red tape that stifles his profits and dreams.

One major hurdle the New York City Council has put in vendors’ way is the arbitrarily low number of food-vending permits available to Kabir and others. With only about 4,000 permits available, this arbitrary monopoly leads to taxi-style rent-seeking, where the government enables existing permit owners to extort vendors for the basic “privilege” of being able to work hard and run a business. In Kabir’s case, he and his partner needed to take out a $25,000 loan to pay for a two-year lease on a permit that cost its owner just $200. Although the city is considering legislation to double the number of available permits, it would only soften, rather than eliminate, an unnecessary problem.

New York City also requires food carts to contract with commissaries for their ingredients, meaning it is currently illegal for cart owners to pursue cheaper options. Because of all this red tape, Kabir usually makes less than $125 a day after paying all his expenses. This is reportedly not unusual for street vendors in a place that bills itself “the greatest city in the world.”

As New York’s vendors and their supporters struggle to roll back some of the more burdensome local laws, their counterparts across the continent in Olympia, Wash. are fighting to remove local red tape entirely. An onerous patchwork of different local regulations across the Evergreen State makes it difficult for law-abiding trucks to reach customers in different cities and counties across Washington. In a recent push at the state capitol, truck owners and a huge crowd of supporters came out to support reform that would streamline regulations and enact a fair, straightforward set of rules statewide that treat food trucks equally.

Key reform in Washington would be to allow truck operators to cook all of their food in their trucks, which is common practice throughout the country. Washington’s requirement that most food served by food trucks must be cooked offsite amounts to economic protectionism for industrial kitchens and higher costs for both food truck owners and customers.

The Institute for Justice (IJ) is working to empower food truck owners and workers with economic opportunity. IJ lawsuits on behalf of food trucks in Texas led the San Antonio and El Paso city councils to repeal protectionist laws that banned food trucks from operating near restaurants or convenience stores. IJ has also filed lawsuits to tear down unconstitutional red barriers around food trucks in Baltimore and Chicago.

Street vending is a booming industry across the country. From New York to Washington, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, policymakers should cut burdensome red tape and empower entrepreneurs to succeed.

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