LOS ANGELES — Manolo Cruz embarked on a unique business endeavor in 2012, selling chopped fresh fruit from a wheeled cart in the gentrified neighborhood of Highland Park.
He envisioned a livelihood selling sliced fruits like pineapples, oranges, cucumbers, coconuts and watermelons displayed atop layers of ice cubes during hot, sunny days.
With daily profits running from $100 to $150, Cruz pays housing, truck expenses and supports his son. He invests from $100 to $150 in fresh fruits a day, plus wares to run the shop.
He sets up his Genesis Fresh Fruits cart at 10 a.m. on the corner of North Figueroa Street and North Avenue 57, and wraps up his workday at 6 p.m. But his lack of formal registration with the city of Los Angeles jeopardizes his job.
Cruz is among the many vendors across Los Angeles County who dot the streets with their fruit-selling carts, influencing a new urban landscape. The artful arrangement of fruits inside the stand’s pexiglass walls attract shoppers to munch on them for $5, $6 and $7 a cup.
However, current municipal laws still exclude healthy food vendors from operating legally.
Los Angeles doesn’t approve any food vending, and on occasion vendors wrestle with police citations ordered by the city attorney’s office. In November 2013, the 15-member City Council began a debate spearheaded by 14th District Councilman Jose Huizar to legalize food street vending carts that comply with local and state food safety and environmental laws.
Ninth District Councilman Curren Price, and First District Councilman Gilbert Cedillo also supported the issuance of business licenses to “healthy food” vendors, or fresh fruit cart operators.
County officials reported 50,000 food vendors operate in the county, and about 5,000 engage in street fruit vending. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they cater to 10 million people in the county.
Cruz loads his unit at the Kareem Cart Commissary, a county-approved facility in South Los Angeles that sells new carts for between $3,300 and $6,000.
“We have to operate out of a commissary,” Cruz said. “This is an aggregate cost the county asks us to run. It costs $150 a month, but it’s an important rule.”
Mark Vallianatos, urban and environmental policy professor at Occidental College, said the biggest obstacle vendors face “is the lack of ability to legally get permits to sell on [street] sidewalks.”
Vallianatos, who co-authored the book “The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City,” said the second issue centers on the preparation of food in contact with airborne pollutants.
“Some spots are considered good places to sell due to proximity to features of the sidewalks such as bus stops, or to features of adjacent buildings such as ATMs, which attract people and arm these potential customers with cash, or gates to schools, which disgorge hundreds of potential customers in the afternoon,” he wrote in the book.
Armando Arizpe, another fruit cart operator who lodges his stand on North Avenue 57, steps from a Chase ATM, must renew his yearly $400 health license on Sept. 15 or his cart could be impounded.
“They don’t want us to carry beat-up carts,” Arizpe said. “The carts need to be in good shape.”
Arizpe stores his cart at La Palma Commissary, located about two miles south from his vending place. He takes days off when it is cloudy, raining or when city crews conduct work near his stand.
Freddie Agyin, environmental health manager for the Bureau of Specialized Surveillance and Enforcement with the Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, said there are 293 cart fruit vendors registered with his department.
“All mobile food facilities are required to go through the public health plan check program for approval before applying for a public health permit,” Agyin said. “Permitting is important because it allow us to identify vendors permitted to operate within the county of Los Angeles and to ensure compliance with the California Retail Food Code, so as to protect public health.”
Isela Gracian, president of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, an organization that supports legalization of street vending, said her group wants to convince city lawmakers to approve business sales regulations.
“The Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign continues to engage city council members on the motion to have a common-sense street vending ordinance,” Gracian said. “The adoption of a citywide policy takes time to go through committees and public hearing processes.”
The corporation, which encourages business equity and public health for low-income people, proposed educational workshops to inform owners about how to operate and apply for a healthy food cart. Under those guidelines, the sale of raw fruit in carts is considered healthy.
Vendors would need to purchase liability insurance, have to apply for a state’s seller permit and receive a food handler’s certificate from the county Health Department.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he wants to reach an agreement with the city council and street vendors to legalize street food vending and the sale of other wares.
Huizar’s webpage states he “is committed to finding an appropriate regulatory process for street vending to ensure safety of consumers, address impacts on brick and mortar businesses and allow vendors who follow the rules to participate in the local economy.”
Currently, 10 health inspectors investigate street food vending issues. They check on unsanitary conditions and look for unprotected servings and adulterations. Vendors get A or B grades after their units pass inspections.
In 2014, a health inspector forced Cruz to dump all his fruit on the street, on grounds that he failed to box them in plastic containers before he arrived to his point of sales, and because he carried watermelons “that shouldn’t be sold on overly hot days.”
“For many of them, it’s so easy to enforce those ordinances, because they are government employees. But it’s us who pay the price out of our pockets,” Cruz said.
Last year, the county started accepting identification cards from the consulates of Mexico, South Korea and Argentina as valid documents to apply for the food operating permits. In addition, vendors must keep sidewalks unblocked for pedestrians and people with disabilities.
Angelo Bellomo, the county’s environmental health director, said the challenge is to move vendors from an industry without operating permits to own equipment and behavior that comply with state and local health regulations.
Bellomo said legalization would attract investors, it will create higher demand for commissaries and the sale and manufacturing of compliant carts would grow.
This article was written with the support of the International Center for Journalists and the S&P Global Financial Data Journalism Fellowship.