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Food Vendor Outside High School Raises Hackles

A food vendor cart parked outside Fort Hamilton High School has parents and area residents crying foul.

Josephine Beckmann, the district manager of Community Board 10, reported numerous calls to the board office after the cart first appeared late last month.

For the parents, Beckmann said, the issue revolves around the fact that, while the city closely regulates food that is sold within its school buildings, all the kids have to do is walk outside to get snacks that would not pass nutritional muster within.

“The parents are calling and saying the kids are limited as to what they can get inside the school and right outside there’s this vendor,” Beckmann said.

For the residents, Beckmann went on, the issue is trash.

The truck, “Generates paper and garbage, and there are no requirements to clean the sidewalk,” Beckmann told this paper. “The residents have to deal with the garbage, and they’re not happy about that. That’s the bottom line.”

Beckmann stressed that the size of the vendor’s cart may be a factor in the objections to it that local residents have raised. “It’s really like a mini-restaurant,” she explained. “It’s not a hot dog cart. It has a motor. It has exhaust. It’s a grill.”

But, while the residents and parents may not be happy campers, the cart appears to be legal, Beckmann said. “We have reviewed it, and the guy has a license,” she reported. “There’s not much we can do about it except make sure he has the proper permits, which it seems he does have.”

There are larger issues, though, Beckmann went on.

“There’s a policy question that needs to be resolved,” she stressed. “This is a residential district. Why is this truck allowed?”

In addition, she pointed out, “There is a distinction between food vendor carts. The objections in the community have been to what many describe as restaurants-on-wheels, which usually have two people behind the grill and sometimes another person on the sidewalk taking orders.

“What we are hearing from restaurants and other businesses is that, if they use a portion of the sidewalk to have a sidewalk café, there’s a process involved and fees involved. It’s quite costly, in addition to the cost of running a business,” Beckmann explained. “But, it seems as if the vendors are not held to the same stringent requirements regarding the use of the public sidewalk.”

City Councilmember Vincent Gentile said that his office, alerted to the situation, has been looking into it. The issue isn’t a simple one, he emphasized.

“We don’t know all the answers yet,” he remarked. “The question I have is, are there any circumstances under which you could have commercial vending in an R2 zone? There’s certainly no commercial overlay. I understand he’s doing a good business. I ‘m surprised it took this long for a truck to show up, but if I lived across the street, I would be upset.”

Nonetheless, he went on, “It certainly isn’t unprecedented. When I went to high school there, there was a truck there pretty much every single day. What catches my eye here is, God forbid you should try to buy a doughnut or a high calorie item inside the school. But, you can go right outside and buy whatever you want from the truck and bring it inside the school and eat it. It brings up a bigger issue. Why have they banned cake and pretzel sales inside school when there’s this truck outside? It doesn’t seem the chancellor’s concern is well-placed here.”

Contacted for comment, the City’s Department of Health (DOH), which licenses food vendors, provided an overview of the rules and regulations that govern them.

According to DOH, there are no restrictions on food vendors operating in residential areas. However, the vendors must be located a minimum of 20 feet from building entrances, the agency noted.

In addition, carts designated as processing carts, which prepare and serve food, cannot be more than 10 feet long, according to DOH. Other food vendor carts, such as those that purvey produce, can be up to 612 feet long and 312 feet wide. DOH also said that vendors cannot do business on a sidewalk less than 12 feet wide, cannot set up within 10 feet of a crosswalk and must be located at the curb.

Mobile food vendors are given a list of streets that are restricted, according to DOH, which also noted that there are no restrictions on the distances between food vendors, or the number of vendors that can work on a street.

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