«Contesting the streets Volume 18, number 1 • 2016 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy Development and Research ...»
David C. Sloane University of Southern California Gabriel N. Stover Gwendolyn Flynn Community Health Councils Abstract Obesity, especially among children and adolescents, is a critical issue that marginalized urban communities nationwide confront. This article reports on the results of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) conducted regarding the reconsideration of a ban on sidewalk food vending in Los Angeles, California. The HIA explored the potential impacts that the regulatory change would have on the food environment near schools, which research shows can play an important role in the eating behaviors of young people, and examined potential ways to encourage healthy alternatives in this nutrition landscape.
Introduction The potential long-term health effects of the obesity epidemic are particularly adverse in the young.
As rates of overweight and obese children and adolescents have risen, concerns about their future and the epidemic’s economic and social impacts have led activists and policymakers to reconsider longstanding customs and laws. This article explores one such law in which the City of Los Angeles, California, decades ago outlawed all sidewalk vending and its recent reconsideration of that
law. Community Health Councils (CHC), a local health policy education organization, conducted a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to examine the health considerations of this proposed reform and to inform the dialogue regarding a potential new regulatory structure (Baird, 2015).
HIAs are an increasingly common way for stakeholder groups, advocacy organizations, and public agencies to examine the potential health outcomes of policy changes and development proposals and to educate policymakers about their positive and negative effects. HIAs focus on a specific proposal that is or may soon be considered for adoption or implementation within a given geography. Environmental and economic factors often contribute to these findings, which make it easier to identify specific populations that are vulnerable to environmental or regulatory changes.
The foci of this HIA are the effect of the proposed legislative change on areas surrounding public schools and a proposal to use the reconsideration of this legislation as an opportunity to reshape the food environment around schools, thereby potentially creating healthier food options that will aid children while creating new opportunities for vendors.
Background With the dramatic rise of children’s weight over the past 40 years, overweight and obesity rates have become prominent public health concerns because of their relationship with chronic health conditions (Child Trends Databank, 2014). South Los Angeles, which has the highest childhood obesity rate (29 percent) in Los Angeles County (OHES, 2013), includes the four City Council districts with the lowest life expectancy (75 to 79 years), which ranges from 1 to 5 years less than the city average (OHES, 2010).
Although few studies have considered the specific relationship of sidewalk food vendors and the health of school-age children, the existing research suggests reason for concern, especially at elementary schools (Tester, Yen, and Laraia, 2010). As part of this assessment, observers surveyed the presence of food vendors at two high schools, two middle schools, and eight elementary schools.
Food venders were most prevalent around elementary schools. This finding led us to devise a more systematic approach to studying the presence and impact of food vendors around elementary schools.
A previous analysis of three elementary schools in South Los Angeles determined that the most common snack purchased from vendors (chips) contains about 300 calories, which accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-recommended daily caloric intake for a child between the ages of 8 and 11, depending on the child’s physical exertion that day.
When a soda is added to the purchase (61 percent of purchases in the study included more than one item), the average caloric intake rises to 480 calories and 24 to 31 percent of the daily recommendation. These measurements led to the finding that students who exercise less than 30 minutes per day (likely most students) may be overconsuming calories by 16 percent with the purchase of one bag of chips and 27 percent with the purchase of one bag of chips and one container of soda.
The study also noted that many of these calories are “empty,”1 leading to passive overconsumption caused by unrelieved feelings of hunger (Goetz and Wolstein, 2007).
Many chips and candy items purchased from sidewalk vendors have an energy density that is two or three times greater than the 1.5-kilocalorie-per-gram threshold marking passive overconsumption (Goetz and Wolstein, 2007).
Student Nutrition Environments in South Los Angeles In response to pressures from parent groups and health advocates, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is reforming policy and lunchroom programs in an effort to make school meals healthier, more accessible, and more presentable to students. These reforms are often works in progress, attracting continual scrutiny and revision (Gase et al., 2014). The process has been driven by a series of resolutions enacted by the Board of Education to limit the sale of sugary drinks during school hours,2 set nutrition standards for snack food sold on campuses,3 improve the marketability and nutrition content of school food,4 establish minimum lunch periods and improve school breakfast participation,5 and enhance procurement standards.6 Although on-campus nutrition environments are gradually improving, the low-quality food environment that surrounds many South Los Angeles school campuses remains a stubborn health challenge (Rose et al., 2009). South Los Angeles hosts three of the city’s five lowest-scoring community plan areas as rated by the Modified Retail Food Environment Index (mRFEI), which measures the ratio of healthy food outlets to total food outlets (DCP, 2013). In South Los Angeles, 75 percent of restaurants employ a limited-service fast-food format compared with 50 percent of restaurants for all of Los Angeles County (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). The prevalence of liquor stores and dearth of full-service grocery stores in South Los Angeles are also well documented, especially in contrast with West Los Angeles (Park, Watson, and Galloway-Gilliam, 2008). It is not surprising that rates of fast-food and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among children and adolescents in South Los Angeles are substantially higher than in the county overall, and rates of fruit and vegetable consumption are the lowest in the county (OHES, 2013).
Awareness is growing that mobile food vendors (including sidewalk vendors and food trucks) are an important, if challenging to quantify, component of this wider food ecology. Also, commentators share a growing awareness that student nutrition advocacy must eventually pivot from campusoriented interventions toward a wider consideration of resource environments in surrounding communities (Mieszkowski, 2013; Mikkelsen and Chehimi, 2007). As lunchroom operators and students navigate a transition to a new and healthier menu, the real possibility remains that students will negate this effort by purchasing nutrient-poor snacks and sugary beverages outside schools. At the same time, sidewalk vendors represent an alternative opportunity to introduce healthier food (for example, fresh fruit and vegetables) into communities where major retailers either do not exist or do not provide it (Fuchs et al., 2014).
Sidewalk Vending Regulatory Environment Sidewalk vending (including food sold from street carts) is currently prohibited citywide in Los Angeles.7 Los Angeles is the only major U.S. city to prohibit the activity on such a comprehensive scale, LAUSD Board of Education, Motion to Promote Healthy Beverage Sales (2002).
LAUSD Board of Education, Obesity Prevention Motion (2003).
LAUSD Board of Education, Cafeteria Improvement Motion (2005).
LAUSD Board of Education, Improving Food Nutrition Policy (2012).
LAUSD Board of Education, Good Food Procurement Policy (2012).
Ordinance appears in Los Angeles Municipal Code, section 42.00(b).
rather than regulate it as a legitimate commerce. A separate ordinance prohibits general vending (including sidewalk vendors and mobile food trucks) within 500 feet of school campuses during normal school hours.8 The latter regulation exists in numerous jurisdictions across the nation, although the specific distances and times vary, and they often include other sensitive locations (for example, libraries, parks).
Los Angeles County, through the Department of Public Health, regulates the food handling aspects of sidewalk vending, but local jurisdictions have the discretion to regulate the spatial and commercial aspects of vendor activity. Regardless of whether food vendors in Los Angeles County are compliant with local rules, they are required to maintain a food service cart permit, which commits them to having pushcarts of a sufficient quality and overnight storage in a commissary. The certification process subjects vendors to permit fees, warehousing fees, higher equipment costs, and periodic safety inspections.
Enforcing these regulations involves law enforcement citing sidewalk vendors, public health officials confiscating products and equipment, or both. Officials can simply warn a vendor to move on or they can arrest them and confiscate and destroy their property (Rosales, 2013). Even given these possible adverse outcomes, sidewalk vending is very widely practiced in Los Angeles, with one agency estimating that around 10,000 food vendors are in the public domain on any particular day.9 With only limited resources available, enforcement may appear arbitrary, often driven by complaints from local merchants, property owners, or school administrators. Rather than discouraging illegal sidewalk vending, enforcement may actually be trapping people within the city’s shadow economy by eliminating the economic gains that would help them secure a foothold in more legitimized enterprises (Morales, 2000; Vallianatos, 2014).
Seeking to relieve pressure on these informal sector workers and microentrepreneurs, dozens of community-based organizations have partnered on a campaign to highlight the legal challenges that sidewalk vendors face and to recognize their influence on Los Angeles’ emergent food culture.10 The Los Angeles City Council initiated the legislative process to legalize sidewalk vending in November 2013—calling for the formulation of regulatory alternatives.11 Although many councilmembers agree the current citywide prohibition of sidewalk vending is impractical and in need of at least a partial repeal, debates about the details of a new regulatory structure have stalled the issue in committee.
Methods This HIA employs a comparison between the nonpermissive regulatory environment in South Los Angeles and a more permissive regulatory environment in Compton, California, to measure differences in vendor-related activity near selected schools. These jurisdictions have similar socioeconomic conditions that may influence sidewalk vendor activity. Unlike Los Angeles, though, Compton allows sidewalk vending but limits it to specific locations and times.12 We capitalize on Los Angeles Municipal Code, section 80.73, defines normal school hours as 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
The report is available in City of Los Angeles, Chief Legislative Analyst, Council file 13-1493 (November 26, 2014).
A list of partner organizations is available at http://streetvendorcampaign.blogspot.com/p/partners.html.
The motion is available in Los Angeles City Council, Council file 13-1493 (November 6, 2013).
The Compton Municipal Code, section 9-26, restricts vending in the following ways: not within 10 feet of vehicle realm, not within 50 feet of another pushcart, not within 300 feet of school campuses on school days between 7:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., and not in residential areas between 6:00 p.m. standard/8:00 p.m. daylight and 8:00 a.m.
this variation and compare vendor prevalence and use across multiple schools in each jurisdiction.
The framework enables us to consider the roles of both environment and regulation in the context of vending and student nutrition. Results may indicate that certain socioeconomic factors correlate with higher or lower sidewalk vendor activity regardless of jurisdictional regulation, suggesting influences other than vendor regulations help shape the student nutrition environment. Differences between the two jurisdictions that are consistent across socioeconomic factors, however, would suggest that vendor regulations do influence the student nutrition environment.
This HIA considers three variables that are closely related to sidewalk vendor activity and can be measured using field observations and student surveys. First, the presence of sidewalk vendors in proximity to school campuses provides one measure of how nutrient-poor snacks and sugary beverages are made accessible to students and how effectual vendor prohibitions are in regulating access. Snack and beverage offerings are also observed for any distinction between vendors who offer more and less healthy options. Second, surveying student and caretaker purchases provides insight on nutrition behaviors in relation to sidewalk vendors and, by including other food retail points, assesses the role of sidewalk vendors within the wider food resource environment. Third, sidewalk vendors have been viewed both as a safety hazard, because they may congest sidewalks, and as a positive influence on safety in the public realm, because vendors represent “eyes on the street” that can check bad actors. This question is addressed by recording bicyclist and pedestrian activity and sidewalk conditions near the same schools where vendor activity was observed.