On a bustling stretch of Delancey Street Friday morning, NYC Health Department officials detailed how they are moving forward with assigning letter grades to all food carts and trucks. At the press conference, Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot confirmed that the department would be issuing the grades to 5,000 food carts and trucks over the next two years.
A handful of food carts now have their letters—including Mo’s Coffee Cart on the Lower East Side. The longtime breakfast haunt, one of the first food carts to receive high marks in the letter-grading system, served as the location for the press conference this morning. Owner Mahmoud Abdel Wahed told Gothamist that he passed his health inspection on December 15th, and received his A letter grade two weeks later.
“We don’t grade on a curve—an A is an A is an A,” said Dr. Barbot. The lowest grade that a vendor can have in order to continue operating is a C. Much like restaurants, the inspections happen randomly. Dr. Barbot said that the inspections would happen “at least annually,” depending on the rating that an individual food cart or truck received.
According to a handout from the Health Department, 20 of the 24 mobile food vending units graded so far have received A's. Two were closed for being unlicensed vendors, and the other two have pending re-inspections after both having racked up 14+ sanitary violation points. As of right now, new inspectors will not be hired to accommodate the growing number of inspections, said Dr. Barbot.
Of course, this proves to be a bit more challenging for carts and trucks, which don’t stay in one location. In order to track every single mobile food cart and truck for the random inspections, the city plans to install GPS geo-locators on them. This part of the letter grade plan was initially met with alarm by vending community and advocacy groups, such as the Street Vendor Project.
“The vending community and we were not supportive of the GPS tracking part of the letter grading program….given that street vendors mostly are made up of very vulnerable populations,” says Matt Shapiro, the Legal Director of the Street Vendor Project. “And certainly given the current climate of immigration in this city, we were worried about any additional incursions into vendors’ privacy, especially their locations in a public space.”
Shapiro says that after vendors and the SVP voiced their concerns to the Health Department, they instilled protections to ensure that no one’s privacy could be compromised in that process. Today, Dr. Barbot confirmed that any location data culled through the random inspection process would be deleted after 24 hours.
The Street Vendors Project and the New York Food Truck Association [NYFTA] support the letter grading initiative, in spite of those initial privacy concerns.
Moving forward, the Health Department will be providing a self-inspection worksheet for vendors so that they can be better-prepared for the inspections. The Health Department is also holding free workshops (in Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, and American Sign Language, in addition to English) to help people better understand what they’re looking for during this “open-book test,” as Dr. Barbot put it.
“It’ll give the consumer some confidence in purchasing food if they know that the food truck is sanitary,” says Moe Ahmed, the owner of Phil’s Steaks, a Philly cheesesteak food truck. “Cause I think a big chunk of New Yorkers are still iffy about buying from mobile food carts. I think it’ll be good for the business owners too.” Smiley, a frequent customer of Mo’s, agreed. “Seeing an A as opposed to a B or C, there’s no question: You know they’re on point,” he says. "A, B, or a C, you might still give them a chance, but you might think about it like what is it that they did wrong that allowed them to get that B or C.”