By Reeshyal Fatima ’17
I’m sure you’ve all had a bite to eat from the street vendors around the corner but have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? How sanitary are these cooks? Where do vendors use the bathroom? How do they wash their hands? Do you actually look if the workers are wearing gloves while they make your gyro or spread cream cheese on your bagel? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when I consider buying from food carts.
In 2012, twelve food carts were cited for vermin and other live animals present in food storage, preparation, or service areas. The food cart with the most violations in New York City is parked in front of the Apple Store on West 67th and Broadway. The cart was slapped with twenty-two violations over five consecutive inspections in 2012. The vendor was caught in the act of using a dirty, oily rag to wipe down his utensils while smoking a cigarette. Another vendor that works for the same cart was seen picking up a pretzel from the dirty sidewalk before putting it back on the pile of pretzels. Disgusted yet? Not all carts are like this but we’re all guilty of eating from carts without really thinking about any these violations. Because of the unsanitary conditions of many street vendors, it logically makes sense to avoid eating from them.
Street vendors have committed a plethora of even the most bizarre violations. In 2012 the New York City Department of Health recorded nearly 7,000 infractions ranging from live rodents to food being kept at dangerous temperatures. Inadequate supply of running water to wash the hands is a major violation many street vendors commit. Oversized carts, parking a certain distance from the curb, and keeping food in separate coolers are other forms of violations. One food cart worker on 43rd Street and 6th Avenue was caught blowing his nose in a napkin and, then, using that same napkin to wipe down the food preparation area. Cameras also caught him red-handed smoking while handling food utensils. The New York City Department of Health fined nearly $16 million in violations last year, yet $15 million of those fines went uncollected.
As it is pretty obvious, the food served in these carts is far from healthy. Street foods are package deals. If you want the flavor, you have to take the calories with it. Also, Mediterranean food is generally prepared with large amounts of oil. Vendors therefore, spread large amounts of oil on their cooking tops and prepare all types of food on it, Mediterranean or American. The amount of oil going into our food is way too generous and unhealthy. Instead of getting lunch from food carts, just head over to a convenient store or deli and get a sandwich from there. You can go even healthier and save money by packing a salad with some fruits.
Despite all the violations, food carts are not held to the same standard as other eateries such as restaurants. As mentioned before, carts were fined in the millions and barely any of it was collected. Street vendors aren’t even graded so we have no way of knowing how sanitary they are. Furthermore, restaurants have clear menus, which describe all the ingredients used to prepare your meal. Street vendors on the other hand, have no such ingredient list. “I admit that I am slightly suspicious of food carts. There are no nutrition facts, no ingredients lists, nothing, ” freshman Yujie Fu said. “However, I must also admit that food carts like Rafiqi’s are amazing, nonetheless.”
Muslim consumers have to be especially aware. Contrary to what the public thinks, street carts may not actually serve “halal.” Simply putting up a sign in Arabic that says “halal” doesn’t actually prove anything. Halal in Arabic means “permissible.” While the meat served is generally halal, as in “permissible” to eat, it sometimes is not “zabihah” (a subsect of the term halal which is used for foods). To make it easier to understand, all chicken are “halal”, but only chicken that have been slaughtered according to the zabihah laws can be consumed by Muslims. “Honestly, I think some carts are just saying they’re halal so they can get some business. I mean, you never really know, and it’s a hassle to go and ask them to prove that the meat they’re serving is actually zabihah,” freshman Tahiya Tamanna, a practicing Muslim, said. Unless carts have verification certificates authorized under the IFANCA, Muslim consumers should proceed with caution.
“I’m in my 4th year at Stuy and to this day I haven’t ordered from a street vendor. Outside of the aroma of the food, there’s absolutely nothing to like,” said senior Zeerak Abbas. Very much like McDonald’s and Burger King, street vendors serve fast food, removing the authenticity of the food. “Places such as Rafiqi’s are selling Mediterranean food and in my opinion are not doing it any justice,” freshman Enver Ramadani expressed. “I understand selling something like hot dogs or pretzels on the streets, because that is basically the only way they have been sold in New York’s history; but food such as gyro meat and pilaf/rice needs to be done the way it has been done since its creation.”
Food carts may not be the best source to extinguish your hunger but if you do buy from them, make sure you are going to the right carts. Approach vendors who have a strong reputation and are complying with the necessary sanitary conditions in order to prepare a healthy meal. Let’s ease our stomachs and our minds.