New York's food vendors feel the heat

NEW YORK • For two decades, Ms Guadalupe Galicia has been waking up at 4am every day to make tamales and rice pudding to sell on the streets of New York.

She is one of thousands of vendors, many of whom are undocumented migrants, who hawk yummy treats in the Big Apple, but they are facing a litany of problems, from weather and assaults to arrests and even deportation.

“One of their biggest fears is the police and that’s why they are extra vulnerable,” says Ms Julie Torres Moskovitz, from the Street Vendor Project (SVP) support group.

New York is known for hot dogs, pizza and bagels, but the food scene is way more diverse. From Venezuelan arepas to Middle Eastern falafel sandwiches, it has it all.

Ms Galicia, 40, an undocumented migrant from Mexico and single mother of six children, sells stuffed tamales for US$2.25 (S$3) each in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn.

“We are only making enough money to support our children.”


Inclement weather is a problem – temperatures regularly drop below freezing during the winter months – but so are assaults, robberies, fines, confiscations and arrests, according to SVP.

The women vendors are particularly vulnerable, it says. Arrests can result in deportation if a vendor’s papers are not in order, which they often are not, the group says.

Ms Moskovitz, who sits on SVP’s advisory board, says some attacks and thefts go unreported because of fear of dealing with the police.

To sell street food, vendors require a licence that costs about US$50 and a permit for the cart that costs another US$200.

But it is very difficult to get a permit. Although there are more than 10,000 vendors, the number of permits has been capped at 2,900 since 1983. There are some 2,000 additional permits for temporary workers, but that is not enough for everyone.

The result is a black market in permits, with owners subletting theirs for US$25,000, often via intermediaries, say vendors. Fake permit scams happen all the time, they add.


Outside Manhattan, in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, street food is mostly sold by women.

SVP says they endure more harassment from aggressive customers than their male counterparts. They also are more likely to be fined by police, the group says.

Most of the female food sellers, such as Ms Galicia, are the main breadwinners in their families.

The early hours suit them as they can take care of their children after school, Ms Moskovitz says.

In November, a video of a policeman handcuffing an Ecuadoran woman selling churros in the subway, where the sale of food is prohibited, went viral on social media, prompting outrage.

Soon, graffiti that read “more churros, less cops!” appeared on the subway. It was also in protest at Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to hire 500 more police officers to monitor the subway.

For years, Ms Galicia worked without a licence. She estimates that she has paid about US$12,000 in fines. Several times, her food was confiscated.

The fines can sometimes be up to US$2,500.

“There are only two options: leave the family without eating or pay the ticket,” says Ms Sabina Morales, a 62-year-old undocumented Mexican migrant who sells fruit and vegetables in Queens.

Ms Jessica Ramos, a Democratic member of New York’s state senate, has introduced a bill that will eliminate the cap.

A less ambitious bill is also going through the city council that would raise the number of permits to 4,000 within a decade.

“These people are trying to make a living in an honest way,” says Ms Ramos, who grew up in the Queens neighbourhood of Jackson Heights – a street food paradise where more than 100 languages are spoken.

Real estate developers, supermarkets and restaurants are among opponents of increasing the number of permits, she says. They denounce what they perceive as unfair competition caused by the vendors’ low prices.

But Ms Ramos says there is room for everybody. “There are times when we want to sit in a restaurant and there are times when we only have five dollars for dinner tonight and we are running towards the house.”


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