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Letter grades for street vendors are good, but GPS tracking – not so much

Today, I weighed in on new rules proposed by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) that would give letter grades like you see in restaurants to mobile food vendors and that would introduce GPS tracking of these vendors.

NYC is known for its food – not just fancier world-class restaurants, but also street food, ranging from halal meats and gyros to all-American hot dogs and ice cream served to New Yorkers on the run. You can even find food trucks that hawk vegan Korean BBQ seitan and Belgian waffles.

All food service establishments, whether they are brick and mortar restaurants or mobile vendors, should be held to high standards of food safety. Restaurant letter grades are popular because they give restaurant-goers peace of mind before they walk in somewhere to eat. Letter grades would benefit street vendors too by lending them legitimacy and rewarding good, clean service.

Currently, food vendors are only inspected once a year unless someone files a complaint. Perhaps it makes sense to reduce fines and inspect vendors more often so that the letter grades are more accurate and up-to-date.

DOHMH’s new rules would also allow the city to track vendors using GPS. While I have advocated in the past that GPS tracking would improve the mobile food vending industry by collecting information about vendor identity, locations and travel patterns, I no longer think it’s a great idea.

Many food vendors are immigrants and given the stories we’ve heard in recent months, there’s a new risk that federal agencies might try to use GPS data to target vendors, their co-workers, and their family members for detention. There has to be a better way to support transparency and food safety without capturing the personal data of vendors.

As Manhattan becomes more and more expensive, food vendors provide a necessary service for workers, residents and visitors, from Inwood to the Financial District. Whether you love street vendors or not, they are part of the city’s food landscape and aren’t going away anytime soon. DOHMH’s new rules offer a opportunity to improve the industry for everyone, but we have to do it right.

Read my full testimony here.