I still remember how an ice cream truck would be stationed less than 50 feet from my high school. When the bell rang signaling the end of the school day, a constant stream of students would stand on line. Each time I walked passed the truck, I applauded this entrepreneur for such a smart business move. The ice cream man parked outside the high school from 10-3, but, after serving hungry teenagers, he could drive around that afternoon and evening feeding eager 10-year-olds.
Although this ice cream man is not the prototype for the typical food vendor, a recent article analyzing the potential of mobile food vending to increase access to nutritious food caused me to flashback to those days. This article in the American Journal of Public Health examined the mobile food vending laws of the 10 most populous cities. The authors, doctors and lawyers in California, aimed to understand how these food vendors can be mobilized to tackle the obesity epidemic.
Mobile food vendors provide three key advantages:
- There small range of food enables rapid turnover, more easily ensuring fresh products.
- They move around, so they can hit many vulnerable populations.
- As my story shows, vendors tend to populate around schools.
Some cities already provide incentives for vendors to sell healthier foods. New York City’s Green Carts program disproportionately increases the number of permits for vendors selling nutritious foods. In Chicago and Kansas City, the government subsidizes, waives, or reduces permit fees for vendors that meet nutritional requirements, a yearly savings of a few hundred dollars.
Besides special regulations for permits and fees, healthy food vendors can have a geographic advantage over other vendors. Kansas City allows what they deem as “healthiest” vendors to sell in 3 parks instead of only one. This principle of geographic advantage can also incentivize healthier vendors to sell near schools.
Yet, despite their potential, many challenges lay ahead. If the number of mobile food vendors increases and additional nutritional regulations are created, an infrastructure to administer these permits and resources must be created. Also, other mobile vendors might resent this new nutritious policy, and nearby store owners might fear this new competition. Additionally, when it comes to law and policy-making, “healthy food” must be clearly defined. And, most importantly, will such a policy actually work, particularly on the target populations (low-income communities, ethnic minorities, students)? How can mobile-vended nutritious food compete with less-nutritious options?
Most political attention to mobile food vendors has focused on sanitation and hygiene. However, vendors provide an unexpected access point in building a healthier society. Granted, there is a long way to go and many questions that need to be answered. But local policy can implement different models to better understand what works.
Who knows? When I visit my high school in a few years, I wonder if that ice cream man will be replaced by some more nutritious entrepreneur.