County

Fruit vendor on Market Street in Ventura. (Photo by Alex Wilson)

A Facebook post by the Ventura County Environmental Health Division asking people to report food vendors operating without a health permit clearly touched a nerve for many people, because it quickly resulted in more than 500 comments expressing a variety of views.

While some people agreed with county officials that the unpermitted vendors pose health risks and compete unfairly against business owners who follow the rules, many others said the unpermitted vendors should be left alone.

The Ventura County Reporter contacted Oxnard resident Paty Diaz, who was one of many supporting the unlicensed food vendors.

“I think there’s room for everyone, you know? And like I said, they’re not harming anyone. They are actually there to provide a service,” Diaz said. “If it doesn’t look clean enough, if you don’t feel comfortable, then you don’t have to say anything. You can just walk away because it’s not your problem.”

But an El Rio resident who shared negative comments about unpermitted food vendors on the county’s Facebook post told the Ventura County Reporter that a former next-door neighbor operated unpermitted roasted corn carts and she saw first hand that the food was not being prepared in a safe way. Cynthia, who didn’t want her last name printed, said her neighbors had a truckload of corn dumped in the backyard once a month where it sat unprotected from the elements.

“They had big vats, huge pots in the back of the property that they would throw this corn into and cook it every day. They never seemed to change the water out. It always smelled like they were cooking gym socks,” she said. Cynthia added that a rat infestation and a propane tank explosion finally got the attention of authorities who shut down the operation, which also led to the neighbors’ eviction about two years ago.

Upswing in vendors strains regulatory resources

Ventura County Environmental Health Division Director Charles Genkel told the Ventura County Reporter that there’s been a huge upswing in the number of unpermitted food vendors in recent months, with many coming from outside Ventura County.

“We received well over 100 complaints related to food trucks. We tend to get a lot of information from local vendors who happen to have their permits. And they are very concerned because they are subjected to inspections. They pay for their permits. And really unfairly, other vendors are coming in without permits,” he said.

While many of the people supporting the unpermitted food vendors accuse county officials of having a financial reason to ask vendors to pay for permits, Genkel said health and safety concerns are motivating their education and enhanced enforcement efforts. “Generally, these sites have poor personal hygiene or lack of handwashing. Often food can be held at improper holding temperatures so they’re not cold or held warm. And there’s always concern about food and the sources where the food may come from.”

Genkel noted that the increasing number of unpermitted food vendors is straining his department’s resources, and he’s rescheduling workers to fill night and weekend shifts when many of the vendors operate. Law enforcement officers need to help with closing these vendors down due to potential risks to health inspectors, but even that’s not always effective.

“We do close some of these facilities down and then we are finding that within a day and in some cases a couple of hours, they’re back up and right back at it,” he said, which is why his department is trying to quell demand by warning people away from the unpermitted vendors.

Role of rising food costs

Part of the reason so many people are seeking out the unpermitted vendors may be due to the rising costs of food overall, Genkel added. “There just seems to be a demand within the county. Clearly, if you’re selling food at a lower rate than what a normal restaurant or food cart or food truck would sell their food at, there’s going to be a higher demand for that. So they’re seeing the customers come out because they’re selling it more cheaply.”

The proliferation of food vendors is not hard to observe. One has recently been set up in a highly visible location in Ventura near the McDonald’s restaurant on the 4100 block of East Main Street. The Ventura County Reporter contacted another vendor selling chopped fruit outside the Kaiser Permanente building on the 4900 block of Market Street in Ventura. The fruit stand had a colorful umbrella and the fruit looked delicious, but there was no county permit attached to it. The young man working at the stand declined to answer any questions about its legality or where the stand came from, citing his limited English skills.

Permitted vendors

express discontent at

Sept. 15 meeting

It appears no one is as upset about the sudden influx of unpermitted food stands as vendors who have paid for the proper permits and are following health regulations. Several permitted vendors spoke out at the Sept. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting including Myrna De la Torre, who said the unfair competition has decreased her food truck sales by 40% in recent months and that her business pays over $70,000 in taxes a year. She also said she’s seen unpermitted vendors leaving behind trash and dumping used cooking oil down drains that can impact the environment.

“These out-of-town pop-up vendors, they’re not bringing nothing to the table to do anything for our community. Instead they have been like a plague,” De la Torre told the board. “It’s more sad because the people of Oxnard are actually backing them up, they’re supporting them. So we’re coming to you guys humbly asking you to help us out because it’s taking a toll on us.”