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Street eats

The City of Vancouver is one of a growing number of cities concerned about local agriculture and food availability; the City set up a Food Policy Council in 2003. So far, the Council’s interest is confined to homeowners producing their own food (beekeeping and possibly backyard chickens), or producing food for the poor with its Grow-a-Row program. It has not extended its reach to the larger issues: ensuring households have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables (grocery store location) or enabling more local farmers to sell their produce in the city. Another ongoing debate for City of Vancouver planners is whether or not to allow street vendors to operate on busy street corners. While we have the commonplace hotdog/sausage vendors, portable kitchens are not allowed. As Tim Pawsey wrote in the Vancouver Courier, “Zealous health authorities suppress any deviation from predictable food service that might be remotely interesting.”

While Asian cities seem to have the best variety of street food (fresh pakoras in Delhi, sizzling potstickers and skewers of meat in Shanghai), many North American cities offer a variety of quick eats. In New York, there are carts selling pastries, soft pretzels, muffins and bagels; in San Francisco’s Berkeley there’s a giant vending machine with all manner of hot meals available. The City of Richmond is slightly better off than Vancouver, with sizzling meat, Chinese dumpling, and fresh fruit vendors at their weekly Night Market. Hot dog/sausage vendors can always be found at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, but recently Toronto City Hall approved eight new ethnic street food vendors.

Street food has even reached the epitome of high art. The Vitra Design Museum in Basel, fittingly located on Charles-Eames-Strasse and designed by Frank Gehry, is currently hosting a Global Street Food Exhibition featuring all kinds of portable kitchens.

In practice, getting street vendors approved in Canadian cities has proved daunting. Toronto’s process required the vendors to invest $21,000-28,000 for carts and pay an annual location fee of $5,000-15,000. As Vanessa Lu reports in the Toronto Star, a rigorous selection process included scoring for nutrition, food safety, locally produced food, ethnic diversity, taste and an overall business plan. Best of all, the new vendors reflect the city’s diversity: passers-by will be able to choose from Persian, Middle Eastern, Greek, Afghan, Korean, Caribbean, Thai, and Eritrean food at the eight busy downtown locations. This is only a three-year pilot project, but the City of Toronto hints at expanding the program in due time.

While the City of Vancouver still claims health concerns, perhaps Toronto’s pilot project will have some impact on the stodgy minds of the health authorities here.


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