A family shops at a vending truck on North Spurgeon Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by: Amy DePaul)

Santa Ana leaders are once again considering options to regulate the catering and produce vending trucks that dot city streets and offer everything from heads of lettuce to tacos and gummy worms.

They’ll have to tread carefully — state and federal courts in the past ruled that previous city laws went too far and unfairly restricted the businesses. As a result, many trucks have become fixtures in the working-class neighborhoods they serve.

That permanence makes the trucks, in effect, the local grocer and corner shop, providing essential household goods and produce in underserved areas deemed “food deserts” because they lack nearby brick-and-mortar grocery stores.

But they come with their own set of public safety and health issues. City officials say they are prime targets for graffiti, produce a glut of trash and litter, are known to sell cigarettes, and block views at crosswalks and intersections.

Councilman David Benavides claims to have witnessed vending trucks selling drugs and storing guns.

But it’s the produce trucks’ displays of candy and junk food that pose the most pressing health challenge. The city has a youth obesity problem — some 34 percent of children are overweight — and some trucks are known to park near schools.

Dr. Patricia Riba, a pediatrician in Santa Ana who specializes in treating obese children, says research has documented weight gain among students who walk home from school and buy from vending trucks along the way.

“These are the most vulnerable families, and they are bombarded with junk food,” Riba said.

Meanwhile, the catering trucks, which serve hot food, poach customers from restaurants that pay higher business license fees, say council members.

All this has led to renewed efforts to regulate the trucks. Councilman Sal Tinajero has called for a moratorium on issuing new business licenses to food trucks And council members are openly suggesting other restrictions, like required distances from schools and restaurants.

At the Dec. 2 council meeting, council members engaged in a full-throated discussion about the trucks and vented their frustration regarding the issue and with city staff for not assembling potential policy options for the council. They requested city staff to bring back a menu of options, most likely in February, for regulating the business, or even eliminating them.

“For far too long we’ve been dealing with this problem,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez.

But what those options might look like in light of the court rulings against the city is unclear. City Manager David Cavazos told the council that the courts have significantly limited the presentable options.

In 1994, council passed a law requiring trucks to move every 30 minutes and prohibited them from parking close to intersections, schools, parks, recreation areas and other vending vehicles, according to the Los Angeles Times. A Superior Court judge threw out the law in 1997, declaring that “the entire ordinance must fall.”

In 2004 and 2005, another council attempted to pass similar regulations, this time mandating that the trucks move every 90 minutes and forcing them to stop vending by 8 p.m. After another round of lawsuits, both state and federal courts issued injunctions against the rules.

Councilman Sal Tinajero said that, when the judge saw a clear racial divide between the Latino plaintiffs and white defendants, he decided to side with the Latinos.

“The judge looked at that, and said, this isn’t a racial issue?” Tinajero said.

Benavides, meanwhile, said the food desert situation has been somewhat alleviated and that public safety should be the top concern. He points to new efforts by Latino supermarkets to offer transportation to their customers.

He said that knowing what he knows now, he would have personally pleaded with the judge to allow regulation.

“I welcome you to come to my neighborhood, and just hang out there for an hour,” Benavides said.

Martinez suggested implementing “red curbs,” or areas that are designated as food vehicle zones.

Tinajero agreed, saying he doesn’t want to disrupt the current food truck renaissance that is happening not just in Santa Ana, but across the country.

“We should have an area where the food trucks can purchase a spot and showcase what they have,” Tinajero said. “I don’t want to shut the door on that at all, I just want to make sure there’s a good balance between food trucks and the neighborhoods.”

Tinajero also challenged Benavides’ assertion that some produce trucks are involved with illicit drugs. “I don’t think we have one case that someone’s been caught selling drugs,” he said.

Randall Guritzky, an attorney who represented one of the plaintiffs in the 2006 state lawsuit against the city, said any ordinance that goes beyond regulating for health and safety would likely be thrown out by a court. That means a rule like required distance from schools would stand up in court, but rules forcing trucks to move frequently would not, he said.

”There is a safety reason you don’t want trucks parked too close to schools,” Guritzky said. “[But] if their regulation doesn’t relate to health and safety concerns, it starts to, or it does cross the line.”

Meanwhile, Roberto Guzman, owner of the Alebrije’s Grill taco truck, insists that the food trucks are already complying with other parts of the city’s ordinance, like keeping the noise down after 8 p.m. and keeping the litter to a minimum.

Guzman says the trucks are already regulated enough.

“We did everything they asked us to do. We did it. We cooperated with them, because it was good for them and it was good for us,” Guzman said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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