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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mobilizing Food Vending: Rights, Communication Technology and Urban Space in the American City

  • Author(s): Wessel, Ginette M.
  • Advisor(s): Crawford, Margaret
  • et al.

Throughout US history, street food vending has rarely been considered an improvement to modern society or its capitalist economy. However, beginning in 2008, a new generation of mobile food vendors serving high quality, inventive foods became popular among affluent populations. This project investigates the contemporary shift in the American food vending industry using ethnographic and data-driven methods to unpack vendors’ operational strategies and their social and economic roles in shaping the public realm of cities. This research investigates four US cities and considers vendors’ unique social, technological, and mobile operations as well as the ways in which they navigate and challenge top-down planning practices. In Los Angeles, California, both loncheras and new wave food trucks chart parallel paths and encounter resistance in ways that respond to different social and cultural environments. In the San Francisco Bay Area, private and public sector interests align to create a robust industry of food truck markets at the expense of food vendors’ long-term autonomy. In contrast, food vending in Portland, Oregon’s artisan economy exemplifies a rare food cart democracy characterized by bureaucratic ease and impassioned local actors. Finally, Charlotte, North Carolina’s more recent vendor growth relies on consumer education and strong vendor activism to resist and reconfigure regulatory pressures. In each of these cities, the project examines the ways “new wave” vendors alter conventional notions of urbanism both socially and politically. This study offers new insights into the ways food vendors support sustainable local economies and contribute to the public realm of cities while shaping regulatory policy from the bottom-up. Understanding the dynamics of mobile food vending is important for urban planners and policy officials whose policies and plans will govern the future growth of the industry and for the vending public who help sustain a progressive industry at the local level.

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