Last Wednesday, Oct. 15, the City of New Haven cracked down on York Street’s beloved food carts — among them, the Caseus grilled cheese truck, the Ay! Arepa cart and the Portobello Latin food cart. The tiff followed the city’s decision to enforce a zoning law that restricts economic activity in residential areas, which on paper include city blocks with Yale dorms. Despite the fact that these trucks have been a relatively stable fixture of the York and Elm milieu for years, they were nevertheless ordered to halt operations for violating this previously unenforced law.
Outside of New Haven, the relationship between cities across the country and their small-scale food enterprises has evolved. Local governments are now aiming to encourage the kinds of food-related entrepreneurship these food carts have exhibited for some time now. After having a long-time ban on food trucks, Chicago, for example, overturned a long-time ban on food trucks by passing an ordinance that would allow food trucks to feed people, while explicating the unique food safety and licensing rules a food truck vendor would need to follow.
But this extends beyond food trucks as well. Cities are changing their zoning codes to make urban agriculture a more prominent feature of urban space — New Haven, for example, passed an ordinance that made previously illegal agricultural activities, like keeping chickens, legal. Other cities are changing their out-of-date health codes that prohibit such innocent activities as opening a stall at a farmer’s market or selling homemade baked goods.
These sorts of food policies — the “less government, more grub” approach to regulating food businesses — are the result of the trendiness of food trucks but also the entrepreneurial spirit of people who might not have the capital to open up an entirely new restaurant.
Why would our city want to punish these small-scale food establishments, then? Students and workers looking to have an inexpensive and convenient meal, and the folks making and serving the food, all benefit from the existence of food carts. It is also important to note that nationwide immigrants were responsible for launching 28.5 percent of new business in 2014 and are therefore the group most likely to be adversely affected by these prohibitive policies.
Given these facts, the food truck crackdown here in New Haven seems less like an obligation for bureaucracy to enforce the laws, but rather has the trappings of gentrification.
The policing of the space where the food trucks operate on the basis of their legality was petty — how can an area 50 feet away from Blue State Coffee and Kiko Milano seriously be considered “residential” and not “commercial”? And why weren’t business owners met with civility by a city agent, rather than threatened with arrest by police?
I spoke with Sebi Medina-Tayac ’16, who protested the city’s move at City Hall this past week. He told me that this isn’t about an attack on food carts at large, but, more acutely, the treatment of immigrant businesses and the tension between established restaurants and these newer outlets for purchasing food.
“Brick-and-mortar restaurants shouldn’t necessarily have the final say,” he told me.
Adjacent businesses have come to the support of the food trucks, while others have complained that they drive customers away and are unfair competition, don’t have to pay the same sort of rent or taxes. But isn’t that kind of the point of the open market? Is it really the city’s role to intervene in such a situation?
I think not.
In realizing their error in the face of backlash, the city and its economic development officer issued an apology to the carts, holding a press conference with the owners of the Caseus Cheese Truck and Ay! Arepa — both the mobile versions of existing restaurants. Medina-Tayac pointed out the absence of representatives from carts without brick and mortar associations like Portobello was another instance of the city snubbing a legitimate, if lesser-established, food business. After agreeing to change their location to the other side of the street, food trucks were given the green light to operate again.
But that’s not to say the city shouldn’t play an active role in New Haven’s food environment. If the city’s going to intervene in any sort of food or labor issues, perhaps their top priority should be the rampant wage theft that has come to our collective attention over the past year or so. Let’s target people exploiting others through food establishments, rather than those just trying to make an honest living.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .