Monday, July 06, 2009

Toward a New Food Cartology

The articles in the NY Times on food vending, and the exposés on the subject in the NY Post, dramatize the compelling need to completely overhaul the food vendor regime; a need that we had envisioned for some time as a result of our frustration with the lack of oversight over the veggie peddlers. The NY Times captures one aspect of the problem: "Under the current system, the permits are so inexpensive and the inspection process is so loose that it creates an opportunity for fraud,” she said in an interview. “The City of New York should get the money that’s on the table, not black marketeers.”

The other problem is the diffuse nature of the oversight responsibility: "Of all the gray areas for food vendors — who are regulated by a cluster of agencies including the Department of Consumer Affairs, the Police Department and the New York State sales tax authority — permits are the murkiest." Still, the idea of increasing their number amidst all of the acknowledged chaos is simply nuts: "The Health Department set the number of full-time food vending permits at 3,100, in 1979. (In the fall, the City Council will vote on a proposal that would increase the number of permits to 25,000.)"

In our view, the current chaos offers the city an opportunity for devising a system that actually works; where the rules are laid out clearly, and enforcement is delegated to one agency. But, of course, no matter how much sympathy we may have for the street vendor concept, some sense of equity for the tax paying and rent paying retailers needs to be built right into the heart of the regulatory system.

It's one thing to want more fruit peddlers in certain neighborhoods to address health issues; it's quite another to simply allow these peddlers to set up shop-literally-right in front of the tax paying food retailers who are trying to sell the same produce. The current administration appears to have almost no allegiance to the neighborhood retailers-and the Bloomberg commercials add insult to injury in this regard. But, if the goal is to stem the disappearance of supermarkets in the city, then what sense does it make to allow competitors with almost no comparable overhead to siphon off business from retailers deemed vital to the city's overall public health?

So, it's high time for an extreme makeover of the vendor regulations-and the city council and the mayor's office needs to get started right away on this so that hearings on the matter can proceed with proper due speed. The crooks and racketeers need to be rooted out, and that goes for the veggie vendors who own wholesale businesses, and run multiple fruit and vegetable carts; while employing scores of exploited workers who have been blocked from owning a cart of their own.