Chicago Tribune: Produce stands legalized in Chicago – StreetWise to set up moveable outdoor fruit & vegetable carts

As Chicago heads into summer, a bumper crop of fruit and vegetable stands is ready to sprout on street corners all over the city. And, finally, they will be legal.

On Wednesday the City Council unanimously approved an amended ordinance to issue an unlimited number of licenses allowing produce merchants to set up movable outdoor fruit stands on private property and in 30 designated locations on the public way. Vendors must conduct at least half of their business in neighborhoods underserved by grocery stores.

Applicants could be licensed by week’s end for locations on private property, according to the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. Public way permits — slated for spots in the Loop, Lincoln Park, Navy Pier, and the South and West sides — could take a couple of weeks, the department said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said after the meeting that the new licenses will help fulfill his pledge to reduce by half the estimated 450,000 city residents who live in food deserts. He called the revised ordinance “a continued down payment to make sure that every resident has the opportunity … to be within a mile of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats.”

In addition to the health benefits, city officials say the initiative is aimed at creating new job opportunities. Mike Simmons, who directs policy for Emanuel’s office, estimates that three jobs will be created for each produce stand.

Some advocates were disappointed that the ordinance leaves out many other vendors commonly seen on the streets, such as the “eloteros” who offer freshly cut fruit and those who sell produce from the backs of trucks. The revised ordinance applies only to sales of whole produce and excludes motorized vehicles.

At a hearing last week before the Licensing and Consumer Protection Committee, questions arose about how the public way licenses would be allocated, as not all of the sites are in high-traffic, affluent areas.

A representative from Business Affairs said those licenses will be distributed by lottery if there are more applicants than public way permits this year. He also said all vendors must document that at least half of their business is conducted in food deserts as defined by the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development.

Simmons said the most likely way to fulfill the requirement would be for a produce merchant to own more than one stand, or operate only in a food desert, instead of moving from location to location.

The new licensing rules were welcome news to Maria Mendoza Fuentes, who has operated a produce stand at Ashland Avenue and Division Street for many years in legal limbo. “We’re no longer afraid an officer might come by and move us,” she said, “even though we know that is his job.”

On a recent morning Fuentes and her husband, Jeremias, were doing a brisk business selling apples, bananas, fresh figs and papayas to commuters and residents. Bananas went for 35 cents, papayas sold for $3.50 and giant red apples were three for $2.

Fuentes recently upgraded her fruit cart to a handsome rolling stainless-steel model as part of a parallel produce program launched by StreetWise and Neighbor Capital. With the blessing of the city, the two organizations plan to train and support 50 new entrepreneurs to become “Neighbor Cart” owners by the end of 2013. They will draw candidates from the ranks of the “unemployed, underemployed or other at risk” Chicagoans, they say.

StreetWise Executive Director Jim LoBianco said the organization, known for vendors who sell its magazine on the street, was seeking new products for vendors to sell that would serve the social good.

“This is truly an individual becoming a business person,” LoBianco said. “When they graduate from our program they will have their own license. They will have an Illinois tax ID number … and we will be helping them set up independent business bank accounts so they can track their funds. So they will be equipped to pursue other business endeavors or expand this one.”

Currently Neighbor Carts buy produce from a large wholesaler, but the city says it hopes to connect vendors with local and urban farms.

Although efforts to “green” food deserts have become a staple of anti-obesity campaigns across the country, Adam Becker of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children says this program is just one piece of the solution.

“We are excited at the possibility that more people in more neighborhoods across the city will have access to fresh fruits and vegetables close to where they work and live,” said Becker, whose organization worked with the city on the ordinance. “We think it’s one of a number of solutions to the food access problem.

“Our neighborhoods are so unique in terms of what residents want and need,” he said. “This is one part of a comprehensive effort that involves corner stores becoming healthier and more grocery stores going into these communities.”

Tribune reporters Kristen Mack and Hal Dardick contributed.