An Analysis of Public Health Policy and Legal Issues Relevant to Mobile Food Vending

America’s largest cities are passing laws that encourage mobile food vendors to sell fresh produce and other healthier foods; access remains limited for low-income and ethnic minority communities.

Mobile food vendors have been a part of the American food environment since the 1600s. Government has always regulated these vendors, restricting where they operate and minimizing competition with local restaurants and markets. Today, cities continue to enforce these traditional restrictions, while experimenting with new laws that use mobile vendors to promote public health.

This report evaluates what cities are doing to create healthier mobile food vendors. The authors examined the municipal codes of the 10 most populous (2007 estimates) U.S. cities. The authors discuss areas of the law that can be adapted to promote nutrition. The report compares four areas of regulation: (1) health and safety; (2) permits and fees; (3) location; and (4) nutrition incentives. The authors suggest criteria for designating “healthy vendors” and discuss challenges such as enforcement and increased red tape.

Key Findings:

• New York City amended its municipal code to create 1,000 additional mobile vending permits for “Green Carts;” “Green Carts” now have priority on New York’s overall waiting list for vendor permits.
• The Kansas City Department Parks and Recreation requires that park vendors comply with explicitly defined nutrition guidelines.
• San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation Department gives priority to vendors whose menus are organic, locally grown and minimally processed.

The obesity epidemic in the U.S. has intensified the need for more nutritious foods in low-income and ethnic minority neighborhoods. Mobile food vendors are potential “produce-aisles-on-wheels;” they may be able to deliver healthier foods to communities that suffer the highest obesity rates.