OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Formalizing the Informal Economy of Street Vendors in NYC

New York City policies and citizens promote food vending as a medium for immigrant workers to earn a living wage, connect with local farmers

Photo of Allison Mckenzie Lindsey
2 1

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

New York University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Other

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Just beginning now

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

New York State

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We are graduate students studying food systems at New York University. Coming from diverse backgrounds ourselves, we find commonality in our passion for food justice and equity. For some of us NYC is home, and for others it is an adopted home for the duration of our program. One team member has taken a class examining the historical and current NYC regulations governing food vendors and the various ways public space is utilized by food businesses. She became involved with the Street Vendor Project, a non-profit that provides legal advice to street vendors, helping conduct field work on vending bans in Queens and connecting street vendors to economic opportunities. Whether it’s to eat a convenient and warm meal or buy fresh fruit, we are connected to street food because it’s woven into our daily lives in NYC.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

If we had to describe New York City to someone who’s never been, they might already have an imagination of what it’s like. NYC is iconic and rightfully so. It’s home to looming skyscrapers, Broadway shows, hot dog and pretzel carts, a never-ending list of fun things to do even when it’s humid in the summer, striking red leaves in the fall, and white wonderlands in Central Park during the winter. Even the countless movies that take place in NYC don’t capture all of its beauty. One of the most magical things about NYC is that it’s also a vibrant mix of different ethnicities and cultures. Of the 8.3 million people that live in the city, 29% are Hispanic, 24% are African American, 14% are Asian, and 42% are White. But did you know that 40% of the population is also born outside the US? You can hear almost 200 languages spoken if you listen carefully. Now imagine the variety of food, from juicy XiaoLongBaos in Flushing, street tacos in Sunset Park, to vegetarian samosas in Jackson Heights. NYC’s 8.3 million residents are spread throughout the five boroughs (Brooklyn, The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island). Many residents work long hours, and commute far distances. This leaves many with little time to think about meal preparation at home. According to the ERS “spending at food-away-from-home establishments” accounts for over 54% of all food expenditures a major increase from roughly 33% 50 years ago. With residents spending more money away from home, food vendors are a great way to serve this need while also benefiting immigrants and small businesses. In the city known as the concrete jungle, there are over 550 community gardens, over 15 urban farms, and roughly 1,700 parks. It is easy for both locals and tourists to become overwhelmed by the plethora of food options. Many know of the iconic hot dog and pretzel carts, but there are over 4,000 legally operating food vendors and over 12,000 total in NYC serving up food from arepas to takoyaki. New York is an urban city that thrives on social connections, whether that be a quick stop in your neighborhood store, grabbing a banana from a street vendor or making it to happy hour with co-workers and meeting new friends. The opportunity to bridge cultural difference is tripled with the amount of migrated scholars, workers and entrepreneurs. NYC transit attests to the diversity this city offers. In just a few short stops one can experience at east three different languages and cultural identity. Diversity is the driving force behind every New York establishment, business and schools. In a city filled with millenials, gen X and baby boomers, New York offers an ever shifting cultural experience. Infectiously New York bring awareness to social issues and call for unity to support all New Yorkers.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment: Producing food waste and packaging waste. Restricted access to place of sale. Diets: Access to quality food for certain timeframes. Many vendors don't sell the food they are used to eating themselves. 2020: More than half of adult New Yorkers have overweight (34%) or obesity (22%), and nearly half of elementary school children don’t have a healthy weight. In NYC, 1 in 5 kindergarten students have obesity. Economics: Gap widen between upper/ middle class to low income. Mostly part time and entry level jobs. Technology: High tech, social media driven and market to via screens ( subway station, buses, and street sides) 2020: Cash only (at most carts) Policy: 2020: The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) govern mobile food vending licensing and construct regulations. The New York Police Department (NYPD) is responsible for enforcing them. The Street Vendor Task Force, which is comprised of 34 police officers, only supplements the enforcement. A study notes that the police typically informally negotiate rather than strictly carry out laws.Because NYC has not updated the amount of permits allocated to food vendors since the 1988, vendors are forced to turn to the black market for vending permits, costing them upwards of $25,000 every two years compared to the price the city charges, just $200. Not only is a black market created, but there’s a lack of consistent and substantial enforcement since regulation is implemented through different governmental departments.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Environment: Vendors don't always have access to source from organic/sustainable sources. Maybe open air markets (similar to farmers’ markets), which could lessen carbon footprint/water/electricity usage compared to supermarkets and restaurants. Or maybe sell at schools, reduces transportation footprint Diet: convenient, often sell fresh fruits and vegetables, possibly incentivise carts to offer healthier prepared meal options besides the currently very limited options hot dogs, halal, etc Economy: provides jobs for immigrants and veterans! Will increase incomes from farmers, food distributors, transportation, attract customers to neighborhood and surrounding businesses Culture: should offer more cultural, diverse foods instead of hot dogs, peanuts, etc. Highlight their extensive food knowledge from their country of origin. Maybe farmers and street vendors can do an educational culinary/farming collaboration at schools (use Alana’s second idea) Technology: currently cash only, develop app for better ingredient procurement process (use Alana’s first idea) Policy: change current rules, there’s been talk of increasing permit # from city council but not enacted yet. Ability to use SNAP on healthy prepared food in 2050

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Fast, healthy food is abundant and accessible on the streets of New York, and people are paid a living wage to vend it. People who are interested in running food business in general have ample resources available to them to do so such as professional consulting. There are no limits on permits and city policies support street vending. Street vendors no longer work 2 jobs. There is no shame around street vending, and street vendors feel pride in their work. Vendors prepare food from their culture. Cultural food education and community building exists through street vending. Immigrant street vendors source from immigrant farmers and have direct partnerships with food rescue companies. There is a diverse food landscape across the city. Technology is utilized to take payments.Vendors initiative refines street food workers to a mid-level job. NYC street vendors earn Michelin Stars. Immigrant street vendors become major stakeholders in fresh food access throughout New York. Fresh food street vending provides full circle to food access (access- distribution- waste) I.e Full cycle system ( farmers- vendors- consumers- (compost)- community garden. Full circle to food access creates initiative share excess food program to feed homeless people by EOD.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?


How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email


Join the conversation:

Photo of Alana Libow

Hi Allison Mckenzie Lindsey and Team!

We encourage you to look at your "High Level Vision" and ask yourselves what challenges is it addressing that can be further detailed in the "Challenges" section both for 2020 and 2050? Additionally, and stemming from the High Level Vision and Challenges, we would love to see a more developed Full Vision for your place and its people for 2050.

To support the above, see our comprehensive Food Vision Prize Toolkit that includes information and tools to help make visions systemic, human-centred and well informed for the future.
Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:


Your team may benefit from attending the up coming webinar on Future-Casting (Jan 16) and reviewing the Systems Thinking webinar:

We look forward to seeing your Vision evolve over the coming weeks!

View all comments