A new training program aims to help San Jose mobile food vendors
Soitza Del Real (center) and Odalis Carvajal (right) are in the current cohort of Eastside Grown fellows at Veggielution, a community farm in East San Jose. The program is helping people gain the skills necessary to run a mobile food business. Photo courtesy of Adam F. Hutton.

What sprouted at a community farm in East San Jose as a workforce development program for mobile food vendors has blossomed into something rare — an advocacy group pushing to make it easier for food cart operators to earn a living.

It’s a community that needs advocates. The work is hard: profit margins are slim, resources are scarce, regulations are daunting; and often street vendors come from marginalized groups with few other opportunities to support themselves and their families economically. But the group has an important characteristic working in its favor.

“The community is rich in entrepreneurial spirit,” said Cayce Hill, executive director of Veggielution, the nonprofit farm that launched Eastside Grown last year to give mobile food vendors a push.

The program recruits people interested in working as mobile food vendors, pays a stipend and provides job training. Areas of study include food safety and health inspections, getting the proper permits, using commercial kitchen appliances — and new for the current cohort of fellows — how to pay taxes.

“We don’t want to set people up to run into these barriers,” said Emily Schwing, Veggielution’s marketing and impact manager. “If we struggle as a well-resourced organization to achieve these goals, then a person on their own doesn’t have a chance.”

Among the current group are Odalis Carvajal, 17 and Soitza Del Real, 40. They were serving up cucumber lemonade and soba noodles with marinated tofu and pickled vegetables from the farm at a recent CityDance event.

As a community college student in her first semester, Carvajal says she hasn’t yet planned a career path for herself. The Eastside Grown fellowship is the San Jose native’s first job.

“I like farming and I love the community,” she said, adding that the program provides a path to gain work experience, learn new skills and earn some money.

Del Real was a preschool teacher in Mexico who only cooked for her family at home before joining the program. “It’s all new to me,” she said, adding she hopes to develop those skills into future business opportunities.

Hill said walking in the shoes of an entrepreneur trying to to get a legitimate food cart business started has been “eye-opening.”

“I don’t want to say disheartening — but the road they walk is hard,” Hill said. “And it has what seems like some pretty insurmountable obstacles along the way.”

The prospects of an individual making it in the street vendor business without support are slim to none, said Yazmin Hernandez Carbajal, who runs the Eastside Grown program for Veggielution.

Even after a year of connecting more than two dozen street vendors to resources and helping the entrepreneurs develop skills necessary to run a fully-licensed mobile food business, Hernandez Carbajal says the process is too discouraging to many would-be vendors.

For example, getting a business license requires a federal application, and since many operators are not legally allowed to work in the United States — they fear revealing their immigration status to the Trump administration.

“Sometimes it is easier to break the law and cook at home or not get the proper permits and pay the fines and start over again,” Hernandez Carbajal told San José Spotlight.

Recognizing that sidewalk vending offers “important entrepreneurship and economic development opportunities to low-income and immigrant communities,” Sacramento lawmakers voted last year to ease California’s restrictions on street peddlers. Previously, cities and counties were allowed to regulate sidewalk vendors as they saw fit — including criminal penalties sometimes aimed at driving them out of town and out of business.

As recently as March 2015, NBC Bay Area reported San Jose police threatening peddlers outside Guadalupe Church in East San Jose with misdemeanor charges as part of a crackdown on unlicensed vendors by Santa Clara County’s health department ahead of Super Bowl 50 — which was played at Levi’s Stadium 11 months later in 2016. Similar enforcement actions were reported at stadium events leading up to the NFL’s big game, including Wrestlemania 31.

The change in law, which took effect in 2019, brought an end by decriminalizing street vending statewide. But the Legislature took it a step further by actually requiring communities to undertake efforts to encourage street vending, citing damage to the economy.

“This is an amazing thing for our immigrant communities,” said Santa Clara County Office of Immigrant Relations spokeswoman Carolyn Lê. “Because the majority of mobile sidewalk vendors are from those communities.”

Veggielution was founded as an urban farm eleven years ago with the mission of connecting people through food — long before the 2015 crackdown in Santa Clara County and the statewide decriminalization of street vendors this year.

Jeff Ruster, assistant director of the San Jose Office of Economic Development, said the city hopes the program will eventually “raise the standard of living,” for peddlers and their families, noting that the people who participate are often from low-income households with limited employment options.

But it can be hard for food vendors to speak up for themselves, fearing reprisals from city, county and even federal officials they depend on for licenses and permits.

“We want to uncover all those gaps and raise up those challenges,” Hill added.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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