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Nashville weighs curb on street food vendors

Critics see racism; city cites health

NASHVILLE -- Citing health concerns, the city is considering a ban on taco trucks and other mobile food wagons that dot the streets in immigrant areas.

Critics say the proposed ban has more to do with cultural differences than with health.

''There's a resounding feeling that these actions are driven by racism," said Loui Olivas, a professor of business at Arizona State University.

Nashville is one of several cities with fast-growing Hispanic populations that have tried to restrict food trucks recently, he said.

''Folks weren't pointing fingers or speaking loudly with traditional hot dog vendors or bagel or ice cream vendors," Olivas said. ''That's always been a part of growing up in America. Why the concern now?"

Olivas says Hispanic food truck operators in North Carolina, California, Texas, Arizona, and Washington state also say they have been unfairly targeted.

Problems with insects and rodents are worse in food wagons than in restaurants, said Jerry Rowland, director of food protection services for the city Health Department. Inspectors have also found waste water from food-truck sinks running onto streets.

Some vendors also prepare much of the food they sell at home, which means health inspectors have no way of regulating the food preparation, he said.

If approved, the law would allow mobile food vendors to operate at temporary special events and would not apply to street vendors, such as the smaller hot dog carts downtown.

Tommy Bradley, one of three City Council members sponsoring the ban in Nashville, said the proposal had been prompted by legitimate health concerns and had not been meant to target Hispanics, who operate most of the 70 or so mobile vendors in the city.

He mentioned a city Health Department inspection of 31 mobile food vendors this summer.

Their average sanitary score was a 67 out of 100, compared with an 83 average for restaurants.

The 31 trailers were chosen for inspection because they operate every day throughout the city, health inspectors say.

''They're not created to function as a full-time restaurant, and that's become the case," said Bradley, who added that he has received complaints from businesses near the food trucks.

''The Health Department could go out and shut them down today, but all that mobile vendor would have to do is roll up and go to another location, and the Health Department doesn't have a way of keeping up with where they're going," he said.

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