A committee of government regulators, food cart and pod owners, traditional restaurant owners, public health advocates, and city officials this week asked the Board of Commissioners to establish new regulations on food cart pods to protect the health and safety of diners and food cart operators.
“We’re constantly rated the No.1 foodie town and friendliest food truck city in the nation,” restaurant inspection supervisor Jeff Martin told the Board during a briefing Feb. 26. “It really shows that Portland has a thriving food scene, and it’s encouraging people to start food trucks.”
In the decade following the 2008 recession, the number of food carts nearly doubled in Multnomah County, as carts began popping up in vacant lots across the region. By comparison, restaurant start-ups grew by 25 percent in the same period.
Although food carts are regulated in much the same way that brick-and-mortar restaurants, there are no regulatory requirements that address safety and sanitation in the food cart pods — a collection of two or more carts. And pod owners and operators are under no obligation to provide trash, wastewater or oil disposal to carts that rent their land. Inspectors with the County’s Environmental Health Services found it increasingly difficult to protect public safety, and last year the division convened a workgroup to propose regulations.
The workgroup included industry representatives from the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Oregon Mobile Food Vendor Association and the Portland Business Alliance. They included operators from food cart pods such as Cartlandia, Portland Mercado and Piknik Park, and food cart owners from Sam's Saj, PDX Six Seven One and Churros Locos.
Over four months in summer 2018, they focused on six topics: drinking water, wastewater, solid waste, pests, setbacks and access to reliable electricity.
“Certain regulations would benefit everybody,” Richard Johnson, co-owner of the Piknik Park Food Carts & Beer Garden told the Board. “Addressing health concerns upfront I think would be a good thing.”
For each topic, the group debated whether regulations would improve food pod sanitation and safety, and, if so, where that authority should lie. They considered levels of oversight, including taking no action, offering outreach and education, pursuing decentralized regulation enforced by local municipalities, or pursuing centralized regulation enforced by Multnomah County.
“There was by no means the assumption that the group would come to agreements, or that landowners and lot owners have specific responsibilities,” Environmental Health Services Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D., said Tuesday.
Yet the workgroup did find pod operators should bear some responsibility for safety and sanitation. Participants settled on the following recommendations:
Drinking water: Pod owners or operators should provide safe potable water for food carts. The Multnomah County Health Department should seek authority to define and administer a potable water requirement.
Wastewater: Pod owners or operators should provide a spill control and response plan, and the Multnomah County Health Department should seek the authority to define proper wastewater management.
Solid waste: Pod owners or operators should provide adequate trash and recycling service for cart operators and diners. The Multnomah County Health Department should seek authority to define sufficient waste management. Because waste management is already enforced by local jurisdictions, the Health Department should consider working with local jurisdictions.
Vectors: Pod owners or operators should have a pest management plan to prevent and respond to infestations by rodents, birds and insects. The Multnomah County Health Department should seek authority to define and enforce those parameters.
“How do you control vectors?” Commissioner Lori Stegmann asked.
“It’s a combination of removing or limiting access to garbage, food, nesting materials,” said Douglas. “We have a lot of leaves, and those collect under carts. Rodents love that. It’s about understanding the mind of a rodent.”
Setbacks: Pod owners or operators should establish and maintain safe distances between carts and between carts and the right of way to prevent accidents such as the spread of fire. The Multnomah County Health Department should seek authority to establish and enforce those requirements.
Power: Pod owners or operators should provide safe and adequate electrical access to carts, and the Multnomah County Health Department should seek authority to administer those regulations.
Workgroup members who attended the Feb. 26 hearing offered their opinions of the process and the resulting proposal.
“Having been in the food cart scene since 2010, I’ve seen a lot of questionable practices within pods. But I’ve also seen a lot of great, safe practices,” said Ed Sablan, owner of the food cart PDX Six Seven One. “The effort this workgroup put forth is really going to make a difference to foster a community of responsible business owners and ensure public safety.”
Owners of traditional restaurants were also included.
“Thank you for including our voices,” said Rachel Clark, owner of the Goose Hollow Inn. “It was a big welcoming circle. They sought to create a safe, candid environment, with clear guidelines. We debated civilly for hours, sometimes emotionally.”
That feedback heartened commissioners.
“I was struck by the phrase that someone felt a sense of purpose,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who supported exploring the proposed regulations. “Often people feel more frustration than purpose.”
“So much boils down to process,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, “the way these decisions are made and how the conversations are had — which can be difficult. I wholeheartedly support the direction.”
Commissioners encouraged Douglas and her team at Environmental Health to work with local jurisdictions and community members to draft an ordinance for the Board to consider this spring. If the Board approved new regulations, they would likely take effect in January 2020.“I know your team is up for this,” Chair Deborah Kafoury told Douglas. “And I’m excited so many people came out to show support for this process.”