Board unanimously supports food cart pod oversight, passes first-ever ordinance

October 10, 2019

The Board of Commissioners on Thursday passed an ordinance that will require, for the first time, food cart pod operators to provide carts with clean drinking water, control for pests, and provide enough trash and recycling, among other obligations.

The vote allows Environmental Health to begin crafting specific rules — a process officials hope to finish by the end of the year. A  committee composed of food cart and cart pod operators, as well as government partners and health officials, will guide that work. Enforcement would begin in early 2020.

Richard Stein, owner of the Hillsdale Food Park in Southwest Portland, said he welcomes the oversight.

“I am honored to lead a team of folks who think most directly about equity and environmental justice as we serve our community,” said Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D. “Most often our strategies are about understanding the data, thinking carefully about the actions we take. But part of our work is about enforcing rules, ensuring the community is healthy, safe, sustainable for everyone.”

Mobile unit inspectors had been reporting trouble when investigating violations such as rat infestations or wastewater spills in locations with multiple carts, finding it difficult to identify which cart or carts might be contributing to the problem. The county’s Food Service Advisory Committee elevated those concerns to the Board of Commissioners in 2017, asking commissioners to require pods to obtain licenses and be subject to oversight. 

In January 2018, Environmental Health formed a workgroup to hash out their leading concerns and then presented them to the Board in February of this year. 

Chair Deborah Kafoury thanked the more than 20 business owners, pod operators and government partners who helped developed the ordinance recommendations. They included PDX 671, Churros Locos, and Pleasant Peasant, City Center Parking, Piknik Park, Cartlandia, and Portland Mercado, staff from the cities of Portland and Gresham and volunteers on the Multnomah County Food Services Advisory Committee.

“It takes time and resources to step away from the daily operations of a business, especially carts that are often owner-operated,” Kafoury said. “It shows you have done a good job and people are really interested in making sure these regulations work.”

Commissioners praised what they called a comprehensive process that incorporated voices from industry and public health.

“I’m really glad we’re doing this. We really love [food cart pods] but we want to make sure we’re following the good rules of public health,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Thank you for all your work on this and for a big public outreach process. This was a really thorough development.”

Vega Pederson asked for one point of clarification: Are single carts apart from pods subject to similar sanitation rules?

Inspection supervisor Jeff Martin, right, alongside Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D.

“That cart would still be inspected to address the same issues,” Douglas said.

“In a group, it can be difficult to identify where problems are coming from,” inspection supervisor Jeff Martin said. “With a single cart it’s easier to target the problem.”

Richard Stein, owner of the Hillsdale Food Park in Southwest Portland, said he welcomes the oversight.

“As an owner of a pod, I too was wondering why the County wasn’t coming to check on the status of my property,” he said. “I think this is a good idea and I support what you’re doing.”

He raised a couple of concerns he said he hopes the rulemaking committee considers. 

“Keep in mind, each pod is different. I caution against a one-size-fits-all rules,” he said. “There should be some language that allows for uniqueness.” 

He also asked how pods operating in open space can effectively control for rats in areas that are surrounded by other businesses that may also attract rodents. 

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said that was a good question.

“I have a rat living in my garage. They’re everywhere,” she said. “So how do you control for that?”

Douglas explained that pods will be required to develop a plan to control and deter pests, including rodents. But those plans will be unique to each pod, and developed with support from her team at Environmental Health.