Food Trucks as a Force for Social Justice

A new book examines how the vendors reflect complex food systems and issues such as class and poverty
food trucks in Atlanta serve customers
“If some cities can recognize and effectively support . . . cultural identity formation through food truck policy and programming, then perhaps they can also contribute to the goals of greater social justice,” said Julian Agyeman. Photo: iStock
April 19, 2018

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Food trucks are increasingly popular across the country—for proof look no further than the fact the Food Network’s competition show The Great Food Truck Race is now in its eighth season. Often these mobile food vendors sell ethnic foods that are otherwise unavailable, and can serve as a gateway for immigrants and others to establish brick-and-mortar businesses.

Food trucks have attracted the attention of Julian Agyeman, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, who has written extensively about what make cities tick. His research has explored the relations between humans and the built environment and their impact on public policy and planning, particularly in relation to notions of justice and equity.

Recently he and graduate students Caitlin Matthews and Hannah Sobel turned their attention to how food trucks reflect complex food systems and issues such as class and poverty. The recent book they edited, Food Trucks, Cultural Identity, and Social Justice: From Loncheras to Lobtsa Love (MIT Press), brings together fourteen essays that reveal how cities as diverse as New York, Durham (North Carolina), Portland (Oregon), Montréal, and Los Angeles accommodate a thriving food vendor culture, or in some cases, are at odds with it, creating barriers through strict permitting regulations.

What the researchers found was a complicated landscape for food trucks and their owners. Two main takeaways emerged. Some cities, like Portland, incorporate food trucks—from the immigrant-owned ethnic food cart to the trendy, gourmet food trucks—into their cultural identity. But in other cities, vendors face power struggles that may result in fines and tickets, even the confiscation of trucks and arrest.

Tufts Now reached out to Agyeman, who is on sabbatical this academic year in Montréal, to learn more about the intersection of street food vending and food trucks in our increasingly intercultural cities.

Tufts Now: Food trucks are popular because, as you point out, they’re “inventive, authentic, and often inexpensive.” What do these essays reveal about their more complex place in the lives of cities and towns?

Julian Agyeman: We entered into the idea for this book by wondering primarily about food truck regulations and their implications for cultural identity formation and ultimately the broader goal of increasing social justice. The idea came from work my research assistant Hannah Sobel, G17, and I were doing. We wanted to know how the adoption of community economic development and an entrepreneurial/empowerment framework for mobile food vending could potentially be a vehicle for giving visibility to marginalized cultural and ethnic community truck owners, and ultimately increasing economic and social justice in any given city.

“Food is an essential element of both individual and cultural identity formation,” said Julian Agyeman.In some cities, like Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, mobile food vending is less of a recent phenomenon. The relaxed permitting processes in Portland has allowed for a storied history of street food vending. In Los Angeles, the Latino/a immigrant diaspora brought with it the street food traditions of many countries in the form of food trucks known as loncheras. From these well-established cities, to more recent ones such as Montréal, Columbus, and Durham, we found a wide range of city responses in terms of the politics and policies behind the regulation and permitting of food truck operations, as well as spatial and cultural practices affecting how, where, and what food is served.

As one of our chapter authors points out, “Food trucks are magical urbanism on four wheels,” a powerful affirmation of pop-up urbanism, where ordinary people, not urban planners, create moments in time and space that capture the popular imagination, and of what we call cultural place-making, the creation of spaces or places where one encounters difference and diversity. They are part of a wider phenomenon of street food vending or street foods, common in the Global South but now increasingly so in many cities, towns, and universities throughout the United States and Canada.

As food trucks have become increasingly common throughout the United States, cities and town have often had to introduce regulations related to permits, parking, the required distance from the curb, often very specific restrictions. Are there cities where the governance of food trucks seems to be working well, and if so, why?

Food trucks in Portland illustrate this point well. The “Food Truck Index” published recently by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation ranked Portland as the best place to operate a food truck. They are a flourishing industry, and their success can be attributed in no small part to the city’s easy permitting and regulation systems. The laissez-faire attitude that allows food truck businesses to open and operate freely promotes community economic development because it levels the playing field for entrepreneurs who may be marginalized in other business niches.

The “Food Truck Index” also shows the difference between a city like Portland and one like Boston. It says that “in Portland, food truck owners must pay an average of just $5,410 to operate their trucks, make seven trips to city agencies and comply with seven procedures; in Boston, they must dish out an average of $37,907, make twenty-one trips to city agencies and comply with thirty-two separate procedures.”

Most of the Portland’s estimated five hundred plus food carts are grouped into semi-permanent “pods” stationed on privately owned downtown parking lots and vacant parcels and have been surprisingly well-received by surrounding businesses and restaurants.

However, no discussion of social justice, a focus of our book, is complete without a discussion of race and ethnicity, key factors in Portland’s food truck scene as well. Take the Portland Mercado, a colorful collection of nineteen businesses. Its central feature is a food cart pod of eight food carts serving a range of Latin American cuisine grounded in the concept of “Latinismo.” Marketing for the Mercado, though, tries to balance the ethnic and the local, showing that even in more relaxed regulatory environments, ethnicity and power relations still have a profound effect on food trucks.

How do food trucks intersect with social justice concerns?

Basically, there were no cities that used current urban policies and planning tools, such as permitting, licensing, zoning, and taxation, to explicitly further the goals of economic or social justice through food trucks. We would argue that if greater immigrant and minority economic power and entrepreneurship is a goal of city authorities—as it should be—then this would be an area to focus on in future policy and planning.

If some cities can recognize and effectively support, as they seem to be doing, cultural identity formation through food truck policy and programming, then perhaps they can also contribute to the goals of greater social justice.

However, looking at municipal regulation paints only part of the picture. The other part is comprised of a complex web of intersecting factors—the most important being race, citizenship, socioeconomic status, and cultural food preferences. The potential and limitations of mobile food vending to positively affect social justice can therefore only be assessed fully by considering wider intersectionalities of regulation, enforcement, political agency, power, and cultural identities.

Why is cultural identity important?

Food is an essential element of both individual and cultural identity formation. The links between food and cultural identity are fundamental, diverse, and visceral. To immigrants, food is the umbilical link between where you’re from, and where you are today. In this sense, food practices—what scholars often call “foodways”—are manifestations and symbols of cultural histories and proclivities. They should be increasingly important to notions of sanctuary cities and mayors should take note of this as a way of proactively increasing their support for immigrants in hostile times.

In addition, the fusion cuisines of many modern food trucks represent the blending and creation of new identities—for example Chef Roy Choi’s Korean BBQ tacos from Kogi Truck that became “LA in a meal.” This intercultural mixing showed that food truck cuisine could be seen as a microcosm of, and a portal through which to view LA and other North American cities.

The best food trucks, of course, serve delicious food. Did you have any food truck favorites or discoveries you made in the course of preparing the book? Did you find a business that stood out as inventive and likely to shape the future?

I really liked both the food of and the philosophy behind the Food Bus by La Tablée des Chefs in Montréal. It came to our December 2017 book launch in Montréal. It is a school bus converted into a professional mobile kitchen to promote the Culinary Brigades program in Québec high schools. It visits schools, helping teenagers cook and improve their knowledge of food and healthy eating habits. On that evening we had a combination of traditional Québécois, Anglo-Canadian and French-inspired food.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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