Yet, if you don’t live in one of these neighborhoods, you’ve probably never seen one of them. These aren’t the types of food trucks you will hear about on the news or praised about on the Food Network. You will never read reviews for them on Yelp, nor study their informal economic impact in a university. But without them, such barrios would really be the “food deserts” they have recently claimed to be.
On a weekday afternoon, Alfredo C. of “Cruz Produce” stands in the middle of an old, rusty brown stepvan on the corner of Hobart Boulevard and San Marino Avenue. It’s 92 degrees out and he’s been there since 9 a.m., he will be there until 5 p.m. He is there every weekday. He’s been working here since he first immigrated from Tlacolula, Oaxaca. The rickety truck is straightforwardly a portable convenience store with some elements of a produce market as well. It is stocked with everything from name-brand toothpaste to laundry detergent, from slightly ripe fresh fruits and vegetables — sold by the pound — to snacks like Snickers bars and Mexican tamarind candies. Those plastic bags hanging from the top filled with water are said to scare away flies.
He informs me that “la ciudad” (the term used by vendors to identify ticketing officers) came earlier that day to check up on his vending permit, which he had and was up to date. According to him, if a produce truck is caught selling without a permit, the whole truck, with everything in it, is confiscated.
While there, a boy of about ten years old came inside the truck and handed him a wrinkled up dollar bill, “¿Me da un dolar de papas, por favor?” (Can you give me a dollar’s worth of potatoes please?) Alfredo picks out five medium russet potatoes, puts them in bag for him and hands it over. The young boy smiled and teased him about their differences in Mexican regional soccer favorites — he seemed to be a regular.
The clientele ranges depending on the neighborhood. In this Koreatown truck, the majority are Central Americans. But for a Santa Ana produce truck, that was also profiled for this story, its clientele was mostly recent Mexican immigrants. Though it is not uncommon for a new gentrifier resident of the neighborhood to come by for a bunch of bananas out of curiosity.
The trucks operate not much differently than an old-school taco truck. Alfredo has a fixed route around the same neighborhood but if his usual parking spot is taken, he moves a few blocks over. Unlike a mobile food truck that handles and prepares food for direct consumption, he needs no commissary to park it overnight so daily expenses are kept low. Plus there is no rent to keep up with. Sometimes, he even leaves the stepvan parked in the street overnight.
These mobile markets flourish in densely populated, low-income, first-generation Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran communities but they are not restricted to them. Some have stayed open in newly redeveloped neighborhoods such as Venice, Culver City and Echo Park where trendy restaurants can be found a stones-throw away.
The concept immigrated along with the immigrants from Mexico. Although in Mexico, these trucks specialize in only one thing for sale. They vary from one loaded with seasonal watermelons from their ranch at a certain time, to another saddled with spring mattresses.