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The Subway Food Vendor Crackdown in NYC, Explained

Selling churros on the B train should not count as crime

A black and white photo of a churro cart in a subway system Flickr/Runs With Scissors
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

On the New York City subway, there are certain common sights. There are the guys who shout “SHOWTIME!” right before launching into performances of acrobatics and dance. There are flyers for psychics and men with vans. And of course there are the food vendors. Sometimes it’s a woman with a cart full of churros, or Ziploc bags of cut mango waiting to be sprinkled with hot sauce and Tajin, or kids selling chocolate or fruit snacks to raise money for their school sports teams. They are at worst harmless, and at best a total necessity in a system that, as of 2017, has 472 stations but only 111 snack-selling newsstands in the system (and 20 of them currently stand vacant).

But recently, there has been a crackdown on the quality of life in public transit, specifically involving food and those who provide it. On November 8, a churro vendor in a Brooklyn station was surrounded by cops, who made fun of her speaking Spanish, handcuffed her, and confiscated her cart. Video of the incident was captured by Sophia B. Newman, who wrote on Twitter, “No matter what the law says, there is no reason why that many officers needed to encircle, demean, and police the poverty of that woman of color. It was an abuse of power, and yet another example of how broken our system is.” On November 11, the NYPD arrested another churro vendor in Brooklyn. And on November 12, the NYPD tackled and cuffed a Black teenager who was selling candy at a subway station in Manhattan.

The crackdown isn’t just happening in New York. On November 4, BART rider Steven Foster bought a breakfast sandwich from the All Aboard Cafe, which operates inside the Pleasant Hill BART station. Foster began eating the sandwich, but was handcuffed and detained by passing cops, allegedly after they passed several other riders eating and drinking on the platform. BART general manager Bob Powers later apologized, but said in a statement, “As a transportation system our concern with eating is related to the cleanliness of our stations and system” — even when riders are eating food they can buy within the stations.

Videos of some of these incidents have gone viral, partially, as the New York Times notes, thanks to the organization Decolonize This Place, an “action-oriented movement centering around Indigenous struggle, Black liberation, free Palestine, global wage workers and de-gentrification,” that has over 86,000 Instagram followers. The videos sparked widespread criticism and protest. Foster’s lawyer said his client’s case “smacks of racial profiling and selective law enforcement,” and activists and politicians have rallied in New York. And the arrest and harassment of food vendors has become synecdoche for a number of other complaints about New York City specifically, from over-policing to MTA mismanagement to systemic racism.

What’s the problem, and why is this happening now?

Over the summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized 500 more cops to swarm the New York City subway system and the MTA has encouraged a campaign to crack down on fare evasion. The state-funded organization is in heavy debt, but the push to earn more money has spilled over into an overall “quality of life” sweep that has resulted in many food vendors being harassed and arrested.

Police and other officials have held the line that these vendors are breaking the law. When asked about the woman arrested on November 8, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said her actions were “against the law,” and that she was “creating congestion.”

According to Matthew Shapiro, the legal director of the Street Vendor Project, there are two issues. First, it’s against the law to sell food in New York without a food vending permit. There are approximately 5,000 permits in the city, the number of which was capped back in 1983, and a waitlist of over 2,500. But even if a vendor had a permit, MTA doesn’t allow vendors of any kind on its property. At first, I assumed it’s because the MTA wanted to make sure that if people were buying food in the subway system, they were buying it from the licensed newsstands. But Shapiro says, “I don’t think they care about that. I just think it’s a continuation of this Broken Windows, quality of life policing that goes on. And it’s usually immigrants and people of color that bear the [brunt] of that.”

But, as in Foster’s case, sometimes this policing is directly contradicted by the transit systems themselves, which allow vendors to lease storefronts and stalls inside stations and sell snacks and drinks, or sometimes whole sandwiches. BART’s code of conduct says riders are prohibited to “Eat or drink in the paid areas of stations or on the trains,” but the availability of food from a literal store in the station sends a confusing message.

One impetus behind these laws is ensuring food safety, but often, the food being sold is prepackaged candy, granola bars, or fried churros. Or, it’s food like Foster was eating, that was prepared in a licensed restaurant. “I understand the need for cleanliness, but I saw that video [of Steven Foster] too, and it was outrageous,” says Shapiro. “I would be arrested every single day if those laws were enforced.”

How much is this crackdown costing taxpayers?

Given that basically everyone will eat on public transportation at some point, arresting vendors seems like a giant waste of money. The MTA recently announced it’d spend $249 million on cops to save $200 million on fare evasion. Those cops are ostensibly in the stations to keep people from jumping turnstiles, but also crack down on any “crime” they come across. I only ever got through pre-calculus in high school, but I’m pretty sure that means the MTA could just save $49 million if it wanted, and not have to deal with the headache of the bad press around cops brutalizing churro vendors.

What’s being done to help vendors?

In New York state, there is pending legislation that would lift the current cap on street vending permits. The cap has only encouraged a black market for permits and allowed cops more leeway to harass street vendors, who are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. It also hasn’t actually curbed non-licensed vendors from selling food. “People who want to vend are already vending, whether they have a permit or not,” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who sponsored the bill. “So this is about legalizing those who are, which will protect consumers because the Department of Health, for example, will [inspect their product] if it’s a food vendor. And so many of these vendors are people who are undocumented, so this would limit police interaction.”

Why this subway vending crackdown matters

Overall, this is about quality of life, just not in the way the cops may think it is. Yes, selling food without a license may be against the law, as may be eating food on a subway platform, but common sense tells us these are de jure regulations that have little to do with how people actually live. Food vendors in the subway is, to throw the Capitalists a bone, an actual example of goods and services meeting open-market demands. Anyone who has an hour-long commute, or low blood sugar, or just finds themself horribly hungry on the way from Point A to Point B knows the value in being able to buy and eat a tamale or a candy bar during the journey. Subways and buses are where many of us live our lives, and as long as we’re not harassing anyone else, it’s generally understood to let people live.

Shapiro points to de Blasio’s response that one churro vendor was breaking the law. “Let’s talk about all the other things that are against the law and why you’re not doing anything about that,” he says. “The reason is because it’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous. It’s absurd: Either change the laws or leave [vendors] alone, because they’re not really causing problems.”