Chicago Food Carts Victory

Food carts—selling hot dogs, tamales, and other delicious foods—are a staple of urban life. Yet until recently, Chicago banned the sale of any sort of prepared food from carts in the city. Street vendors, who are most often immigrants on the first rung of the economic ladder and willing to work long hours in search of the American Dream, were locked out of a source of economic opportunity. But after a long fight led by the Institute for Justice and the Association of Street Vendors, the city council has finally opened the streets to food carts.

IJ’s work with street vendors in Chicago began more than five years ago. Because there was no official license for most carts, vendors operated in the shadows, experiencing unpredictable and selective enforcement by police. The city’s establishment of a minimal license makes this occupation legal, increases the diversity of food on the street, and secures protection for vending as a path to prosperity.

To effect this change from the grassroots, IJ formed the Street Vendors Justice Coalition, working with groups of all political stripes—including the Illinois Policy Institute, Asociación Vendedores Ambulantes, immigrants’ rights groups, labor activists, local policy think tanks, and small business associations—to press the city council to reform the law. IJ was able to make use of its unique strengths as a public interest law firm to serve as a bridge between these vendors and city hall. Many of the vendors are unable to speak English or draft technical legal documents. But IJ facilitated discussions between the vendors, Chicago’s aldermen, and the health department to create minimal, streamlined rules that cover health and safety to the city’s satisfaction, while leaving out protectionist barriers.

The ordinance IJ drafted was introduced in May 2014, but that was only the start of a long fight to move it out of committee and to a general vote. In September of this year, the legwork paid off, and on the day of the hearing, IJ led a rally of vendors and supporters who marched to Chicago’s city hall in support of the new ordinance. As a result, the ordinance passed the hearing unanimously and passed the general vote shortly afterward.

The new ordinance went into effect this November, and in honor of the occasion, IJ gathered together over seventy members of the Street Vendors Justice Coalition in a celebration on November 19. But the event was more than just a social (and culinary) affair: IJ also wanted to ensure that vendors have the resources they need going forward to understand and obtain the new license. The first vendor to apply was Claudia Perez, whose story humanized the issues for the street vendors’ campaign.

Nevertheless, there is still work to do, as other senseless and burdensome restrictions remain. For instance, unlike in many other major cities, the food cart operators cannot prepare food onboard; instead, they can only sell food put together beforehand. Yet this development is a major victory for the right to earn an honest living and pursue the American Dream.

— Daniel Kendrick

Daniel Kendrick  is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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