Small businesses have long been the backbone of American communities, and food truck owners in Spokane, Washington are showing why these civic-minded entrepreneurs are valuable even to people who cannot afford their services.

According to a report in The Spokesman-Review, when Shameless Sausages food truck owner Tony Epefanio heard about the stories of the homeless in his city, he decided to take action. As the president of the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association, Epefanio coordinated with other owners to donate hot food to the less fortunate. The coalition of food truck volunteers also teamed up with other concerned locals to provide drinks, snacks, warm clothing and hand warmers to dozens of people who have to live on frigid streets in the winter.

Within an hour of handing out their first donations, Epefanio and his team had served roughly 100 people, with more to come. Spokane truck owners are hardly alone. From Texas to California, “reverse food trucks” supported by churches and beer companies collect food donations to fight hunger.

This proactive, community-based charity would have been much more difficult in cities like Chicago, where city ordinances discriminate against food trucks to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from successful competition. Chicago food trucks must park at least 200 feet away from any brick-and-mortar restaurant. Food truck owners who run afoul of the law face heavy fines of as much as $2,000. For comparison, parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant in the Windy City sets back violators by only $150.

Apparently, Chicago thinks protecting restaurants from competition is 13 times more valuable than enabling firefighters to efficiently fight fires.

Chicago officials claim that effectively making food trucks illegal in 97 percent of the Loop, the city’s densely populated downtown district, will “encourage” them to locate in areas underserved by restaurants. In reality, the restrictions put nearly 100 food trucks out of business in the last five years, and a judge ruled “the 200-foot rule does not encourage food trucks to locate in areas lacking restaurants.”

It is sadly ironic that Chicago’s purported efforts to force food trucks into places abandoned by restaurants only serves to destroy businesses that provide income and opportunity. By contrast, the far less onerous regulatory approach in Spokane enabled truck owners to voluntarily help those in need without any government prodding.

The relative lessons of Chicago and Spokane are valuable for policymakers everywhere: Economic liberty empowers people to help themselves and their communities. Government picking winners and losers does not.

Rek LeCounte, Communications Project Manager, Institute for Justice