September 23, 2019

Food carts are growing in Multnomah County more than seven times the rate of brick-and-mortar restaurants. But as food carts became ever more popular, often clustered on vacant land and parking lots, these emerging food cart pods exposed a gap in oversight.

Food cart pods create community gathering spaces in otherwise vacant lots.

Until now, it’s been up to food carts individually to supply clean water and electricity, control for rodents and wastewater disposal while the owners or operators of the property the carts are parked upon had no responsibility. 

That left food cart owners pointing fingers when health inspectors discover overflowing trash, rat infestations or greasy water spills. Food carts are not subject to fire setbacks, so a fire in one cart can spark a series of fires if carts are placed too close together.

Individual carts are required to have fresh water for washing hands and dishes, but inspectors have found some carts use tubing not intended for drinking, and sometimes the hoses are punctured because they run along the ground, under foot and vehicle traffic.

At the same time, food pod operators are under no obligation to provide trash, wastewater or oil disposal to carts that rent space on their land. That makes it difficult to point to a bad actor when agencies receive complaints about illegal dumping.

This week, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners will consider an ordinance to close that gap — shifting some public health responsibility from individual carts to pod owners and operators.

The operators of food cart pods would be required to provide power, clean water, trash and recycling services to the vendors, as well as control for rodents,  a plan for how to clean up wastewater spills, and assurance that carts are set far enough apart to prevent fire from spreading.

Food carts are outpacing brick-and-mortar restaurants in Multnomah County. But safety regulations at pods haven't kept pace.

“Food carts and pods are a vital part of the county’s food scene. They create economic opportunity and valuable placemaking in our cities and neighborhoods,” said Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas, Ph.D. “To keep these pods thriving, we’re closing a loophole that may put our communities at risk. We’re raising the standards on pods to meet best practices already in place for mobile food carts.”

Thursday’s board action comes nearly two years after Douglas and her team of health inspectors first brought together landowners, pod operators, food cart vendors and health officials to form a workgroup on how to improve conditions in locations where carts congregate.

The board will hear public testimony during Thursday’s meeting. People can also submit written comments online.

In November 2018, a workgroup of 40 food industry representatives, property owners and state and local health officials finalized food safety recommendations for food cart pods in the county.

“I would really hand it to the county for soliciting all this input instead of making recommendations in a bubble,” Richard Johnson, owner of two pods including Piknik Park, said after the taskforce finished its work. “Getting all these other perspectives was very admirable. We all tried to reach consensus, but where we didn’t do that, we presented the different views so everyone felt heard.”

Asking food pod operators to take some responsibility in food safety would require an investment upfront. It’s an investment he and his business partner decided to make, and he said it’s paid off financially. Food cart vendors will pay a little more for access to basic services. And customers are happier in the end.

members of the food pod work group gathered Nov. 15 to celebrate months of hard work.

“There is a lot of variety of standards in food cart pods, and it benefits everybody to standardize it,” Johnson said. We try to do everything to make a positive, inviting environment for the customers. Because success for the carts is our success, too.”

The ordinance would go into effect in January 2020, at which point property owners or managers who wish to operate a food cart pod would obtain a license from Multnomah County Environmental Health. Environmental health will establish that license fee based on an estimate of hours inspectors will need to conduct plan reviews and inspections. 

The license fees will support inspections and enforcement of six public health concerns:

  • Access to safe drinking water 

  • Safe electrical power to food carts

  • Appropriate disposal of solid waste 

  • Wastewater spill plan for carts and diners

  • Appropriate setbacks between carts, and between carts and rights of way

  • Effective pest control measures 

“This has been a long time coming. For years our inspectors and food cart operators have been frustrated, and it reached a point where something had to change,” said Jeff Martin who oversees the county’s restaurant inspections. “And the process has been great. Operators and owners have been able to come to the table with public health advocates and agencies to come up with recommendations that work for everyone.”