By Dianna Daoheung, Entrepreneur in Residence at Hot Bread Kitchen
Co-Written By Jenny Kutner
Earlier this year, immigrant entrepreneur and mother Maria Falcón was arrested in Brooklyn for operating a fruit stand at a subway station–a common sight across New York City. The video of her arrest, filmed by her daughter, quickly circulated online, sparking outrage amongst everyday New Yorkers, lawmakers and street vendor advocates. Although the incident has been linked to a move to crack down on street vending, the penalization of street vendors is nothing new. The number of tickets issued in NYC has been on the rise and it has long been challenging for smaller vendors to afford the cost of doing business on the street. In New York City and beyond, street vendors are forced to make a wrenching decision: do what they can to support their families–and face fines, harassment, or arrest–or struggle to make ends meet.
Seeing Maria’s arrest and the continued harassment of other vendors reminded me of my own experience growing up in Florida, where my mother sold citrus and herbs on the street. My mom, an immigrant from Thailand, worked full-time as a housekeeper to support her three children, but her pay was well below minimum wage. She knew she needed additional income to feed us, and the orange tree in our backyard provided just that; it was almost an innate thing for her to take this free item that grew in abundance and turn it into a business. My mother sold fruit until continued interactions with local police forced her to stop, which was a frustrating and confusing experience; working on her own and with limited English proficiency, she felt like she didn’t have support.
Like so many immigrants to this country and entrepreneurs around the world, my mom became a street vendor to achieve economic stability. For her and countless others, becoming a street vendor was about survival, resourcefulness, taking what you can and finding a way to make a living from it. Street vending doesn’t just provide vendors and their families with a source of income; it is also critical to ensuring the vibrancy of local economies and street life.
“Street vending doesn’t just provide vendors and their families with a source of income; it is also critical to ensuring the vibrancy of local economies and street life.”
Research has shown that the “informal economy,” which includes street vendors, is key to food security in lower-income communities, which tend to overlap with food deserts. “Street and market vendors reach areas without supermarkets, offer low-cost alternatives to restaurant meals, often extend credit to regular customers, and sell in smaller, more affordable quantities,” Caroline Skinner, Urban Research Director for Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing (WIEGO), told City Monitor. And they’re good for other nearby businesses: a survey by City Limits found that brick-and-mortar businesses on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street saw a 20% decline in sales after street vendors were banned from the area. Vendors also provide an informal public service: as one of the store owners put it, “If somebody was in trouble, they’d be the first ones there–even before the cops.”
Despite the vital role street vendors play in the community, vendor caps and long waiting lists make obtaining a street vending license extremely difficult. The origins of these legal obstacles in NYC can be traced back to the 1980s and “really come from a very xenophobic and anti-immigrant and, frankly, racist background,” Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, Deputy Director of the Street Vendor Project, told the Bronx Times. “There is no way to become a legal vendor in New York City.”
For decades, grassroots activists have been fighting to change the policy regarding street vending. Recently, advocates have been holding demonstrations to urge lawmakers to pass Senate Bill S1175B, which would “provide more vending permits, expunge past vending-related records, and have a civilian agency to fully oversee the street vending industry.” But for now, street vendors still face the possibility of tickets, or worse, when they head out to work each day.
Whether someone is selling homemade jerk chicken or Tajin-dusted mangoes from a cart on the corner, street vendors literally give NYC its flavor. I’ll be sad the day there isn’t a churro lady selling fried, cinnamon-y treats at my train station! As the push to create more legal opportunities for street vendors continues, Hot Bread Kitchen is doing what we can to provide more robust support for these entrepreneurs as they work to provide for themselves, their families, and their communities. Since the pandemic began, many people have been trying to make money by preparing food at home and selling it in their neighborhoods, and we want those businesses to be viable and sustainable. Hot Bread Kitchen’s food entrepreneurship program aims to provide specific resources for cottage industries like street vending, which are critical to the economic and cultural landscape of our city. We exist to provide support–the kind of support that entrepreneurs of color and immigrant entrepreneurs, like my mom, typically don’t have as they try to make their way in this country. We’re here to help entrepreneurs on the path to economic opportunity–and that path should be lined with food carts. Our program, PROOF, is just one of the ways we are able to provide mentorship, financial education, and access to commercial kitchen space for our entrepreneurs.