02/22/2012 07:44 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

The Fight to Keep L.A. Street Vendors Alive

By Pablo Rodriguez

Did you know it's illegal to be a street vendor in Los Angeles? Did you know the señora you bought a taco, fruta mixta, churro, or tamale from could be fined up to $1,000 and do jail time for selling food on an L.A. sidewalk or 500 feet from a school? In Boyle Heights, street vendors are looking for alternative ways to sell food without the fear of being fined, arrested, or having their goods confiscated. The East L.A. Community Corporation (ELACC) and local vendors recently launched a campaign to help eight vendors sell legally at a Boyle Heights farmers' market. 

"Street vendors are a part of all of us," said ELACC's Community Organizing Director Mike Dennis, who believes getting vendors established at the farmers' market is crucial for legitimizing and regulating street vending in Boyle Heights. "They are our neighbors, friends, and family. They [should] be able to operate and provide for their families legally, and continue to contribute to the economic prosperity of our community."

The fight to get L.A.'s city council to support the Boyle Heights' farmers' market has not been easy. Vendors need new equipment that meets health department standards. The cost to pay for food certification training, kitchen rentals for food prep, health permits, insurance, farmers' market rental space, and equipment is about $1,875 per vendor.  Although ELACC's campaign is initially starting with eight vendors, the plan is to grow to at least 30 more vendors in the community.   

But how did the situation get so bad for street vendors? Here's a bit of history:

About a year ago when the great recession deepened, small businesses started seeing street vendors as competition and began pressuring L.A. County health inspectors and L.A.P.D. to crack down on street vending. Boyle Heights' vendors created a grassroots community market, where for 10 years, families enjoyed steamed tacos, peeled fruit, tamales, and flautas, but the L.A.P.D. shut it down a year ago. Officers confiscated food and fined unlicensed vendors up to $400. Four miles west of Boyle Heights, the city posted signs in the Westlake neighborhood that warn: "Street and sidewalk sales of goods are prohibited."  Violators could face up to $1,000 in fines and jail time.

A study released in May 2010 by USC School of Policy, Planning and Development students Josefina Campos, Jasmine Kim and Lauren Yokomizo called "Street Vending in Boyle Heights: Opportunities and Challenges" presents workable solutions for the street vending crisis. Conducted on behalf of the Los Angeles Urban Renewal Network (LURN), the study found that while traditional businesses were primarily concerned with unfair competition created by street vendors, only 18% of businesses actually filed a complaint. Eighty-two percent restrained from complaining to the authorities out of compassion for the vendors. The study recommends establishing a "Street Vendor Council" with board members from public and private sectors and the community to coordinate key resources, provide accountability and ensure compliance. 

Threatening to jail street vendors who only seek to provide for their families does not reflect our values as Americans nor does it move us forward. Tasking police officers to do the work of the health department is not only inefficient, but an unfair burden to our local government. To get involved in the fight to make street vending legal in Los Angeles, check out ELACC's next fundraiser Street Vendor Fundraiser Part Dos.

Here are five other ways to help:

  1. Watch and share this video.
  2. Make a small online donation.
  3. Help spread the word about the next fundraiser.
  4. Volunteer by emailing street vending organizer Janet Favela at
  5. Like East LA Community Corporation's Facebook page.

--Pablo Rodriguez

Pablo Rodríguez is the Executive Director of Communities for a New California (CNC), a statewide civil rights advocacy organization. Pablo is committed to achieving public policy that is socially, economically, and environmentally just for California's families.

Photos by Rudy Espinoza