For over a decade Balbina Sanchez has made a living selling enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos and more on the streets of Boyle Heights. She says she was arrested for selling without a license and watched police officers throw away her products and dismantle her equipment. But now — thanks to a two-year effort by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) in partnership with the office of Councilman Jose Huizar — Sanchez and her fellow street vendors have a new space to safely sell their food.
Last Saturday, ELACC hosted the grand opening of El Mercado del Pueblo, a new farmers’ market that will be held every Saturday in the parking lot of Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights. The farmers’ market will open at 5pm, and will include food from local street vendors.
Isela Gracian, associate director of ELACC, told EGP that the farmers’ market is a short-term solution to provide Boyle Heights street vendors with a safe space to sell, as well as providing more access to fresh produce in an area where there are few grocery stores.
“It allows us to be able to provide a platform for economic development and for [vendors] to gain experience as well as being able to bring the produce side of the market to the neighborhood,” Gracian said.
ELACC is currently hosting community town hall meetings across the city of Los Angeles to get input on a draft policy to legalize street food vending in the city.
As ELACC looks at different models of legal street food vending in other states, Huizar, who attended the opening ceremony, told EGP that El Mercado del Pueblo is a pilot program that should be looked at by neighboring cities concerned about how to deal with illegal street food vending.
“This is not the last that we hear about issues of street vendors, but it is an example of what works,” Huizar said.
He said creating opportunities for street vendors to sell at farmers’ markets is different from past failed efforts, such as creating specific selling districts across the city, because “there’s been a lot of community input and a lot of community participation.”
Sanchez, who now has a license and health permit to sell on the street from a lonchera (a small truck converted for selling food), told EGP that being able to sell at a farmers’ market would help in the long run.
She said because her lunch truck does not get many repeat customers, going to the farmers’ market, where her profit margin is smaller, helps her “make ends meet.”
Sanchez, speaking in Spanish says she hopes to see more farmers’ markets spring up around the area. She’s not worried about competition, because “people go where they like” and every vendor has a unique style.
Martha Garcia, who sells tamales and gelatin and has also experienced run-ins with the law, has been trying for sometime without luck to get her license and permits in order. But she and eight other vendors, with help from ELACC, were able to get a license and permit to sell at El Mercado del Pueblo. For Garcia, the market is the only safe place she has to do business.
“I keep working on my business because it’s my job and it’s what I live off of,” Garcia said in Spanish.
Garcia added that she feels it’s wrong to treat her and other street vendors like criminals for doing something that helps the community, offering quality food at affordable prices.
“Are we criminals? No. I think that word is too harsh for us simply because we are illegal,” Garcia said.
Both Sanchez and Garcia applaud ELACC’s efforts to legalize street food vending in Los Angeles, but cautioned that supervision is needed to ensure that all street vendors have the needed licenses and permits.
Asked how she thinks brick-and-mortar businesses should react to a new street vending policy, Sanchez said that as the former owner of a restaurant in Mexico, she understands why many would oppose the policy and think it is unfair for street vendors to run a business without as many fees and regulations.
However, Sanchez added that she hopes brick-and-mortar business owners recognize that street vendors are not their competition, since they sell different products. She said they too deserve a chance to sell.
As ELACC moves forward with more town hall meetings between now and November, Garcia said she hopes the result will be that the policy goes through — for her sake, and the sake of the community.
“We shouldn’t lose street vendors because we are an example to the community,” she said, “We offer Mexican food that many people ask for, and we try our best to do everything right, healthy, and clean.”