A Different Sort of Cart

A little rain has never scared Maria-Elizabeth Mendoza. When it starts pouring in Little Village, she doesn’t rush to close up her business, a fruit cart on 26th Street. Instead, she just hops under a nearby awning and waits for the rain to subside. A lot of cart owners are men, she tells me, smiling, but they’re still more likely to run from the weather.

Maria-Elizabeth, age 28, has dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, thin eyebrows, and an ever-present grin. She got her current cart seven months ago, and it is now arrayed with a neat and colorful display of bananas, tomatoes, and oranges. It’s part of a larger collaboration between the city of Chicago and two social service organizations, Streetwise and Neighbor Capital, to promote fruit stand vendors. The program hopes to tackle two social ills at once: unemployment and food deserts.

Streetwise is a non-profit, best known for hiring people to sell its magazine who might otherwise resort to panhandling. Neighbor Capital is a for-profit organization with the joint mission to help the unemployed find jobs and to increase access to healthy foods throughout Chicago. Streetwise helps find and train the vendors, who are at least at risk of homeless and un- or under-employed, while Neighbor Capital leases the carts and provides further sales training.

“Now with John, we have support from him, in all ways,” says Maria-Elizabeth. She’s referring to John Piercy, the president of Neighbor Capital. “He gave us the permit. We can say, with the district, we have extra support with them. Everything is legal now.”

Before she started working with Neighbor Capital, Maria sold fruit from a hand-made wooden cart. She only had a peddler’s license, which meant she technically had to move continually–standing on one corner for too long was illegal.

Only last June did the city council legalize stationary fruit carts. Maria is now at her corner Monday to Saturday, 10am through 5pm. Now customers can rely on her, and her income has gone way up. She appreciates that she can take home cash every day, and take two months off in the winter to take care of her four children, who range in ages from one to twelve.

The stability helps not just the vendor, but the community, too. “We train our vendors to be good salespeople and good assets in the neighborhood,” Piercy says. The vendors bring healthy food to the community and make it a more attractive place to live.

Currently, there are seven carts in six neighborhoods: Little Village, Lawndale, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Uptown, and Streeterville. The plan is to expand to 30 carts next year and employ 50 people by the end of 2013. The city mandates that half of those carts must operate in “food deserts,” areas with no nearby grocery stores–and therefore little access to fresh produce.

Approximately 384,000 Chicagoans live in a food desert as of October 2011, a third of them children. This is a 40 percent drop from five years earlier, but the number of city residents living without access to healthy food is significant, and has serious health implications. A study by the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group in 2006 found that the communities with the least access to grocery stores in 2003 had twice the death rate from diabetes as the communities with the most access.

Maria-Elizabeth’s cart is certainly not in a food desert; there are plenty of grocery stores and restaurants right on her block. However, the issue is not just access to healthy foods.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chicago’s current unemployment rate is 9.4 percent–though the program is small now, it could prove to be a convincing model for more small-scale entrepreneurs. Elizabeth Kregor, the Director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, believes that the city should do everything it can to encourage small businesses. She applauds the fact that fruit stands are now legal, but thinks that the city could do much more.

“Sidewalk vendors are not allowed to sell any food other than uncut produce and frozen desserts,” she points out. “So, the most affordable, accessible food service business is illegal in most circumstances… Sidewalk carts are not allowed to sell many healthy foods, not even prepackaged foods like tamales.”

The laws against eloteros, small stands that sell cut fruit and corn, are not heavily enforced. Right on Maria-Elizabeth’s block two cart owners are busy selling mango slices drizzled with lime and chili. Still, vendors must worry about the rare occasions when they are enforced: Kregor recalls meeting one woman who was arrested just for selling tamales in front of her house, lemonade stand-style.

Maria-Elizabeth, for one, is happy with the security of her job and loves seeing her daily customers. Her younger sister Isabel helps her at the cart, while her husband, Jeremias, delivers fruit to all the different vendors. “It feels great. I enjoy it,” she says. “I always enjoy it because starting out I was working with my husband. But now, being the owner of my own business…” She grins. “It feels better.”