Eleven-year-old Luz was on a mission. Mom needed tortillas de hoy, that is, tortillas made fresh that day.
With her portable game console in one hand and cash in the other, Luz and her two cousins made the short walk from her family’s apartment to the vending truck in front of her building on North Spurgeon Street in central Santa Ana.
After Luz scampered away, tortillas in hand, two boys raced over. One of them requested a bottle of tamarind-flavored soda and a gallon of water. Later another child stopped and asked for a trapeador, a mop.
Kids and families buy from vending trucks every day in Santa Ana. The trucks sell milk, produce and a variety of household essentials, functioning as a combination of Vons, Walmart and corner convenience stores.
This is especially true in some center city neighborhoods that are considered “food deserts” by public health advocates because they lack established grocers where people can buy affordable, nutritious food.
In many ways, the trucks are a godsend to families who don’t have reliable transportation to supermarkets and are short of cash when they get there. Some food truck owners will offer credit to cash-strapped families waiting for a paycheck, which is not a service at Vons or Walmart.
But beyond selling tortillas and trapeadores, the trucks lure young customers with in-your-face displays of candies and chips dangling from outside the trucks, suspended from the ceilings and crammed into row after row of shelves. Some of the trucks park close to schools, where officials have worked in recent years to eradicate junk food.
The trucks are a serious concern in a city where 34 percent of youths are overweight and open space is scarce, say public health advocates. To anyone familiar with the latest thought on urban youth obesity, the trucks can seem nothing less than predatory, tempting kids to eat the very junk food that is making them fat and susceptible to serious illness.
“This is a public health issue,” said Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez. “We don’t want to get rid of the trucks, but we need to regulate them, and I want to talk to them about selling more fruits and vegetables instead of candy and soda all day.”
Dr. Patricia Riba, a pediatrician in Santa Ana who specializes in treating obese children, said that research has documented weight gain among students who walk home from school and buy from vending trucks along the way.
“I had a parent complain about the trucks the other day,” Riba said. “She said, ‘My six-year-old sees the trucks, and that’s all he wants.’ These are the most vulnerable families, and they are bombarded with junk food.”
The city has issued 116 business licenses to truck venders who operate as many as 300 trucks in the city. The Healthy Eating, Active Communities initiative, a multi-city effort to improve public health among low-income communities, has made more healthful offerings at food trucks a key goal for Santa Ana.
In 2004, motivated more by traffic and esthetic concerns than health, the Santa Ana City Council passed an ordinance that required the trucks to park at least 500 feet away from schools, parks, playgrounds and community centers.
The trucks also were required to move every 90 minutes and confine their operating hours from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The ordinance empowered the city manager to revoke a license after a violation, according to City Attorney Joe Straka.
But groups of truck owners sought relief in both state and federal court, prevailing and effectively preventing the city from enforcing the ordinance, Straka said. As a result, licensed truck owners are subject only to the traffic and parking rules that apply to any other vehicles.
Martinez believes the city’s hands are tied and that a reasonable proposal to truck owners is the only viable approach. She hopes to appeal to the vendors’ sense of community, telling them that “your children are dying; you’re part of the problem.”
She doesn’t expect them to stop selling all sodas and chips but would like more healthful options. She wants the trucks, some of which are colorfully painted, to include images of fruits and vegetables.
Federico Sayre, an attorney representing 300 truck owners, said he and his clients are willing to discuss Martinez’s concerns, though he declined to say what truck owners might agree to. “We want to work something out,” he said.
“It’s their sole livelihood, and they work many hours in their trucks and sell these things in neighborhoods where they’ve been for many years,” Sayre said. His typical client owns one or two trucks, he said.
“Santa Ana never had a corner grocery store. In order to go to a brick-and-mortar store you have to drive a large distance. This is hard if the family has one car and one person takes it to work.”
Other cities have successfully enacted healthful vending policies. For example, New York encourages fresh produce sellers by moving them ahead on the waiting list for vendor permits, according to the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity. In San Diego, vendors must park at least 500 feet from schools, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
But not in Santa Ana, where on a recent afternoon two food trucks were parked about two blocks from Garfield Elementary School. Within a few minutes of dismissal, children and their parents were streaming past the truck, some passing without a glance but others gathering at the counter in groups of five or six.
The truck’s wares included bubble gum, gummy worms, gummy worm pizzas, suckers, teaspoons of tamarind candy called Cucharita Rica and all manner of snack chips but also avocados, tomatoes, tomatillos and limes.
A woman walking her 10-year-old home from school stopped by the truck and made a quick purchase. Like all other parents questioned that day, Cristina (who only wanted to give her first name) said she had no problem with vending trucks. As for overweight children, Cristina blamed the buyers — parents who yield to the demand for unhealthful food — rather than the sellers.
To reinforce her point, she showed the items she had bought at the truck that day: an avocado and a small trinket for her daughter.
“You see that I didn’t buy candy,” she said.
Amy DePaul is a freelance writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine literary journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org