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Food operations in parks and other public spaces
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• A 1993 letter to Ontario public health official Rob Nickol about the proposed new food regulations as they affect street food
Ontario Public Health
Dear Rob Nickol,
Your explanations (when I came to see you on Nov.15) of the proposed new food regulations, in their current draft form, were very helpful to me. Thank you for taking so much time. As we were saying goodbye, I told you I'd like to write you a letter about the regulations. So here goes.
You know that I am trying to look at the regulations from the point of view of people who are competent cooks, and may have cooked street food in their own countries, but who have very little money to rent a commercial kitchen or buy a catering truck or any of that sort of thing. These are the people who are likely to fall into the welfare hole, and for fiscal reasons (as well as reasons of basic humanity) there seems to be an interest in political circles these days in "micro-enterprise" -- business ventures that poor people can get into even if they have very little money, but are smart and capable. Street-food selling is an obvious, and world-wide, micro-enterprise.
It seems to me that the draft you showed me lays down a more intelligent, more consistent set of rules than the ones currently in force. It opens the way for smaller capital outlay than the current rules require, often replacing the strict formulas on kitchen design and equipment (four sinks, etc.) with measures of outcome: that is, if a cook can show she has acceptably low levels of bacteria in her food, then she can have fewer sinks and other gadgets (if I understood you right). It seems to me that such a change can make a huge difference for cooks who haven't got much money. The new rules also seem to open the way for other foods besides hot dogs -- am I right?
On the whole, though, I was sad about the small amount of public input into these changes. It sounds as though there's been industry input -- Kentucky Fried Chicken and M&M Meats and Shopsy's -- and health food input (I mean, by people who want to improve nutrition), but really not much else. I think you told me last May, when we first spoke on the phone, that you're so busy in your job that you haven't got much time to seek out the public. It sounded as though you were concerned about this, and perhaps that's why you're thinking about a "task force," with representatives of various ethnic communities, which would consider the draft regulations and comment on them. The problem I see with this form of consultation is that for the Chinese representation, for instance, you proposed the Chinese Restaurant Association. Relatively powerful groups such as the restaurant associations will not speak for the interests of small vendors. Those associations may have helpful things to say, but they don't address the problems of the truly small fry, of which I think there are so many that notice must be taken of them.
The difficulty of keeping micro-enterprise in mind was illustrated for me when you told me how close you had come to making home kitchens explicitly illegal for the preparation of food for sale. Such a regulation would affect the livelihood of a great many people. That's why I think the interests of street food vendors and small-scale cooks need particular representation and discussion.
It seems to me the way to do this is for the drafters of the regulations 1. to do some good practical research about small-scale food-selling (here and abroad) before the final rewrite of the regulations, 2. to get in touch with a variety of people who sell on the street and cook at home (for sale), and 3. to see if there are ways of distinguishing between micro-enterprise and the commercial giants in the regulations (along the lines of the farm-selling provisions). I'm sure that's not easy -- it's obviously very important to provide for safety -- but is it impossible?
If you were interested in these three things, I think I could help. Some of the research and the contacts are already there for me. About a year ago I started talking to food vendors on the streets about the difficulties they face, and what they would like to sell but can't. One of my teachers was a Chilean man who sells empanãdas from a cart in Kensington market. I bought his food and asked him questions. He told me he had his cart at Sherbourne and Bloor when he first came to Toronto, but he was threatened and his cart was kicked by the hot dog vendors who "owned" that corner. At his next location he was given a warning by police, and then he embarked on a long and fruitless struggle with city authorities to be allowed to sell something other than hot dogs. He settled on selling from a spot in Kensington, on private property.
I asked the Chilean man a lot more questions and when I kept bothering him, he invited me to lunch, and gave me my homework. That is, he told me how to find out more, particularly about all the underground food-selling that goes on here. At his instruction I went to a big ethnic festival in an arena, where there was all kinds of wonderful food for sale and inspectors didn't come; some sidewalk festivals where half the "exhibits" were unsanctioned food; the back of a shop where there was a line-up and a lady cooking at a grill (but no sign); a city playing field where three picnic coolers appeared suddenly, and the hungry teams lined up for food which one of the soccer wives had made to sell; a baseball game on a hot day, where a small ice cream cart, with vendor, popped up and later was quickly gone when a police cruiser drove too near; certain supermarkets where trays and trays of prepared deli food -- salads, perogies, tofu burgers -- arrived three mornings a week, carried in by three or four members of a family; and the list is much longer. So many people already earn money in this way, but they're forced to do this outside the law. And of course, when small-scale cooks do these things outside the law, it's not the same as for the big-time hot dog sellers, who consider police ticketing and so forth "part of the cost of doing business," or who might have a relationship with the food inspectors that allows them some confidence when bending the rules. But when there is a very small margin between survival and catastrophe, and a necessity to operate outside the law, fear and anxiety can even increase dangerous practices (as in the news item on Pune, India, in the attached "Patterns in Food Vending" quotes).
Why I'm so concerned about this: because of a conviction that street food selling can make sidewalks, and parks, and community centres, and waterfronts, and other public spaces, more convivial. It's my impression that community life in this city, and other cities, has become somewhat endangered. Too many people are strangers to one another. I have noticed that people are drawn to good smells of food and will often stop rushing for a moment and pay attention to where they are, and who else is there, when there's something good to eat. An indoor park that I've been involved in for many years became a neighbourhood `commons' when people began to eat together there. And I've noticed also that the food seller, if that person is friendly (as street cooks must be; people don't buy from grouches), often draws people into conversation. The vendor can become an antidote to the impersonal daily rush.
Last spring I became interested in how Dufferin Grove Park, down the street from where I live, might become more of a neighbourhood meeting place. At a public meeting, held in the library community room, various possibilities were discussed. Food was one thing: what draws people together more easily? We had invited Richard Boehnke to our meeting. We also invited a Guatemalan street food cook to come and serve free tostadas (paid for by our residents' association), with a choice of guacamole and salsa, or black beans and cheese, or grated radish and sour cream. This was "show and tell" (and taste). Boehnke declined to eat, on the grounds of conflict of interest, but he said he wanted to help us remove blocks from selling food insofar as that was possible. Almost everyone else at the very well-attended meeting ate at least two tostadas.
A few weeks later three neighbourhood residents met with five officials at the Dufferin Grove Park Field House (a solid little brick house built in 1913), which was not in use. There were two people from Public Health, including Boehnke, and three people from the Parks Department. We wanted to see whether the field house might be converted to a community kitchen acceptable to the Public Health Department. It could then be used by local food vendors who couldn't meet commercial standards in their home kitchens, to prepare street food. Technically the answer was yes, and we also found out some fascinating facts from Boehnke (for instance, that if food was cooked just outside the field house over an open fire it might more easily meet regulations than if it was cooked indoors on a stove, and that a bead curtain is as efficient in keeping out flies as is a screen). The Parks Department, as is their custom, were quite discouraging.
Our neighbourhood group now has possession of part of the field house -- just as a clubhouse for now; it's very important to start small and be patient -- and we also have a year's cooking-fire permit, for any site in the park, with the cordial blessings of the fire department. We've hired someone to cook over a fire at Dufferin Grove Park four times so far -- black kettle, bannock on a stick, corn and potatoes in the coals. It is a fantastic way of bringing people together. People met over a bannock breakfast who had been living in the area for ten years, and had never talked. But I think the legality of sharing food in this way is dicey.
I have been told that there is a policy in the Recreation Department now which might let a community group invite food sellers -- in effect sponsor them to sell their food in a park or a community centre. This is a rule that may be able to modify existing positions in the Parks Department (which wants to be progressive but has a lot of trouble finding ways out of its own maze of regulations).
So you see I've been involved with this issue both in the way of collecting stories and testing the bureaucratic waters. It's my impression that there is growing public acceptance of diversity in street food, and that there is also bureaucratic good will (especially at the higher levels) toward easing the way for micro-enterprise. That's why I think that public health regulations which are attentive to the needs of these small-time cooks could do an enormous amount of good now.
See also Health Protection and Promotion Act