Promoting Street Vendor Rights
2020 has been tough for street vendors all over the world with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many vendors into their homes for the first time in years, because rain or shine they would be out selling flowers, fruit, clothing, and hot food. There are over 20,000 vendors doing the same in New York alone - about the capacity of Madison Square Garden - and many work long hours under harsh conditions as small business owners. Mostly immigrants and people of color, street vendors have become disillusioned by the pandemic, but as New York City returns to a constrained style of living, street vendors are continued to be targeted by the city's aggressive "quality of life" crackdown, which continues to demonize street vendors across all five boroughs.
This crackdown comes from denying access to permits, receiving exorbitant fines for minor penalties, long waiting lists, closure of the Health Department for renewing licenses and permits, and closure of streets to street vendors at the urging of powerful business groups with more sway in the political sphere that individual street vendors. All this combines into a concerted effort to deny street food vendors the ability and access to sell their products to their community.
We know first hand how tough this can be - we were in a waiting list for over 5 years to get a permit directly from the city of New York. We sought to acquire one for our food cart, but many individuals have bought multiple permits years ago, and rent them out to those who are looking to start a new food cart. This market simply helps the buyers of the permits back in the 80s and 90s as a supplemental income on top of their other income streams. I will give credit to the city for attempting to install GPS trackers on all food carts with a permit in order to track for health + safety reasons as well as to cancel the previously distributed permits to open up possibilities for others to acquire permits. While the initiative was stopped due to the pandemic, we have had no word from the health department on how to proceed or when they will reopen.
We look to our local government to help facilitate us as small business owners to be successful, but it feels at times like working against a quicksand pit. Any movement seems to be negative unless you have the right contacts and the right people helping facilitate what you are trying to achieve. Thankfully, we now have people with us.
The Street Vendor Project is an initiative of the Urban Justice Center in New York City that provides a membership-based project to work together to create a vendors' movement for permanent change. They are also the group behind the Vendys which celebrate the pushcart heroes of the city. You can learn more by visiting their Facebook and Twitter.
Organizations like these are instrumental in helping promote food security and food access for many New Yorkers. We are proud to provide affordable authentic food to help combat the lack of food security and access that our community suffers. The Street Vendor Project helps street vendors have a voice when it comes to combatting this suspicious aggressive crackdown aimed at "quality of life" that impacts immigrants and people of color the most.
Back in April, I had a PhD student from Columbia University reach out to us to ask some questions as part of her thesis focusing on street food vendors human rights in New York City. I remember her questions that were impactful in the way we think about food security and food access - things that I never really thought about before. I am excitedly awaiting her publishing her thesis, but her questions reminded me during the pandemic about why we started Chapati Man and why we continue even in these difficult times.
It's about giving back to those who cannot give anything.
It's about feeding our community.
It's about making sure people do not go hungry.