January 10, 2018

As food carts cluster into pods, health inspectors find it increasingly difficult to control for proper waste disposal, pest control, clean drinking water and fire safety, Multnomah County’s Environmental Health Director Jae Douglas told commissioners Tuesday during a briefing.

“Food carts have not been subject to the same requirements as restaurants, and that’s begun to improve. But there is no structure for the pods,” she said. “We have identified solutions, but none come without a cost. So we plan to engage in a dialogue about what are the right solutions.”

Douglas and her team of health inspectors are bringing together landowners, food cart vendors, health officials and the public to form a work group on how to improve conditions in locations where carts congregate. They plan to submit their recommendations to the Board this fall.

In the past decade, Multnomah County has seen a nearly 200-percent increase in the number of food carts, outpacing restaurant growth by nearly four-to-one. Today there are more than 900 carts, many clustered in one of the 80 pods across the county. That’s one cart for every 878 people; more than three times as many as Las Vegas, and nearly five times as many as Los Angeles.

“Every year we see a vibrant growth in carts,” said Jeff Martin, supervisor for the county’s team of more than health inspectors who make twice-a-year visits to restaurants and carts. “Food carts contribute significantly to the community by benefiting neighborhood livability, by fostering social interactions, walkability and providing interim uses of vacant lots.”

Carts also spur entrepreneurship, offering a low-barrier entry to people who want to start their own business. That disproportionately helps people of color and immigrants and refugees, people more likely to speak a language other than English or who may lack access to the capital needed to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

But there are safety and health concerns inspectors can’t adequately address, he said.

 
Health inspection supervisor Jeff Martin talks about health and food cart pods.

Unlike restaurants, food carts are not subject to safety requirements such as fire setbacks. So in a pod, carts can squeeze together wheel-to-wheel. When a food cart exploded in October at a pod near First Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Portland, it destroyed a neighboring cart and damaged nearly a dozen cars. That may not have happened if there had been a required minimum space around each cart.

Lot owners are under no obligation to provide trash, waste water or oil disposal to carts that rent space to their land. That can make it difficult to point to a bad actor when the City of Portland responds to a complaint about illegal dumping, said Amber Clayton with the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services. She said the city recently fined a cart more than $2,000 after it dumped waste water into the street. But in clusters of carts, it can be difficult to identify which cart did the dumping.

John Holtrop, with the bureau’s Fats Oils and Greases program said when oily waste leaks, it can clog the sewers and cause backups. A few lots have installed grease traps leading to the sewer line, but it’s not a requirement. 

While individual carts must have a way to dispose of trash, lot owners are not required to provide trash disposal to its carts, and that can cause overflow into public cans, said Kevin Veaudry Casaus, with Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability Solid Waste & Recycling group. Portland maintains 475 public trash cans in Portland's downtown core, but the vast majority of overflow complaints are generated about the 34 cans nearest to downtown’s largest pods. When trash spills out or when pick-up is irregular, it attracts more rodents and pests. 

Individual carts must have fresh water for washing hands and pots. Often lot owners offer a central reservoir from which carts pull. But inspectors are finding that carts use a variety of tubing not always intended for drinking, said inspection supervisor Martin. Those hoses often run along the ground, under foot and sometimes vehicle traffic, causing punctures that get patched with duct tape.

Environmental Health Director Douglas said she anticipates some of the recommendations that will come out of a work group would include requiring lot owners to provide clean water and trash disposal for tenants, and bathrooms and hand-washing stations for guests. She would also like to see requirements for minimum spacing between carts.

Commissioners called the presentation “disturbing” and “thorough”, and encouraged the environmental health team to pull in diverse voices for the work group.

“No doubt that with the health department taking on this task, we will have a thorough vetting,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “I look forward to some action to move forward on.”