Cart-opia: Repurposed Trailers Fuel Portland Foodie (and Livability) Movements

Portland Food Cart potato lady photo

Photo credit A.K. Streeter via flickr and Creative Commons.

They are known as 'pods' or 'clusters' - groups of small repurposed trailers and carts with wheels that have infiltrated every major neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Mexican carts serving soft-shell tacos and bulging burritos were part of the trend's re-ignition. But Portland has taken its food cart pods beyond the norm - there are now more than 200 carts in the city, and they are an institution, and a great part of the local economy. They continue to introducing city dwellers to such fanciful new food trends as Korean-Mexican fusion (Koi Fusion), and have covered over some of the dreaded surface parking lots that so abound.

Portland Food Cart creperie photo

It's my neighborhood pod - pizza, french fries, Mexican, fried pies, crepes (gluten free!) and a BBQ spot. Photo credit A.K. Streeter via flickr and Creative Commons.

Carts are inspiring their own blogs, maps, and now a full-length book called Cart-opia. Carts are a fabulous citified example of reuse and a delicious way to eat (relatively) local.

Here's what a Portland State University group had to say about the food carts in a report from 2008:

Food carts have significant community benefits to neighborhood livability by fostering social interactions, walkability, and by providing interim uses for vacant parcels. Additonally, carts provide good employment opportunities for immigrants and low-income individuals to begin their own businesses.

Portland Food Cart people at picnic tables photo

Social interaction and all. Photo credit A.K. Streeter via flickr and Creative Commons.

It's not all positive. Food carts can increase the amount of trash in surrounding neighborhoods, and not much of an effort has been made to get food cart customers to bring their own plates and utensils, or provide resusable ones. (In the PSU survey it was noted that 64% of patrons want recyclable to go containers). In addition, regular 'storefront' restaurants have complained that food carts have cut into their business. And lastly, food carts don't really abound in healthy food choices - BBQ, pizza, and Mexican does not a balanced diet make.

Portland has a long history of providing space for food carts - Joseph Gatto sold produce door to door from a horse-drawn cart starting in 1912. And New York must have the best and longest U.S. history of street markets and food carts. New York now has 'Green Cart' legislation that provides licensing to cart vendors who promise to bring fresh produce to low-income neighborhoods.

Now the food carts bring lots of diverse cuisine to neighborhoods, and increase walkability and sociability between customers. The PSU study found 65% of visitors to carts walked to them (bicycling to carts wasn't counted in the study.) In addition, 75% of the carts at that time were located on streets with speed limits of 30 miles or less (and Portland has on its legislative agenda to reduce speeds to 20 mph on 'bike boulevards.'

Many businesses (65% of those surveyed) would prefer vacant lots be parking lots catering to their customers. But the carts are also offering advancement and independence for immigrants and others who could not afford to open a storefront - cart owners rarely borrow from banks or get other financial assistance in order to start.

Portland has never actively discouraged its food carts (as cities such as Los Angeles did with a two-hour rule for these 'mobile' operators) and thus the cart economy is flourishing in spite of a poor economy and high unemployment in Portland. The PSU report encouraged the City to continue to support the carts as they do incorporate elements of sustainbility via economic benefits, environmental benefits (majority of people walk to the services) and social benefit.

Read more about food carts at TreeHugger:
Saying No to Eating Out
Eating Local Food: The Movement, Locavores and More
Street Kitchens From Around the World

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