From Loncheras to Lobsta Love: Food trucks, cultural identity and social justice.

food-trucksFish tacos, vegan cupcakes, gourmet pizzas, and barbeque ribs, all served from the confines of cramped, idling, and often garishly painted trucks. These food trucks are becoming increasingly common sights in many cities throughout the United States such as Boston, MA, Washington D.C., and Chicago, Ill. Within the past few years, urban dwellers have flocked to these new businesses on wheels to get their fix of food that is inventive, authentic, and often inexpensive. In cities like Portland, OR and Los Angeles, CA, however, mobile food vending is less of a recent phenomenon. In Los Angeles, the Latino/a immigrant population brought with it the street food traditions of many countries, in the form of lonchera taco trucks. And Portland’s relaxed permitting processes have meant that it has a storied history of mobile food vending.

Because of the way in which food trucks are challenging the distinction between public and private spaces, as well as being a unique and informal food source, they are garnering the attention of urban planners and policymakers interested in food systems. In particular, much attention has been paid to food trucks in discussions of community economic development and cultural identity formation. The relatively low start up costs of mobile food vending means that it is a business model more accessible to people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic status.

Frameworks of community economic development (CED) can be used to address economic analyses. Moreover, because food is an essential element of cultural identity formation, food may be even more important for marginalized groups (e.g. immigrants and minorities) who can use food to both navigate and negotiate their cultural marginality (see Blog ‘New agricultures, cultural diversity and foodways‘). With implications for both CED and cultural identity formation, food trucks can also affect just sustainabilities issues around social justice. Cities that are working to develop progressive food policies would therefore do well to acknowledge the potential associations between food trucks and social justice. While there has sometimes been a difficult relationship between mobile food vending and municipal governments, the growing consumer demand for food trucks ensures that many cities are now taking steps to embrace the trend.

This Blog, which represents an early stage of research, assesses the limitations and potentials of mobile food vending to positively affect social justice by asking the following questions: “What are the motivating factors behind a city’s promotion of mobile food vending?” and “How might these motivations connect to the goals of social justice?” In practice, we want to know how can mobile food vending be a vehicle for increasing social justice? What are the policies or programming that might support or impede this goal?

We argue that cultural identity formation and CED are the two frameworks through which we can identify social justice in policy and practice. We therefore first describe these two frameworks, before explaining how food trucks as uniquely postmodern phenomena are situated to be a potential route to increased social justice in any city that both recognizes and acts upon this potential. We then briefly describe the food truck scenes in Los Angeles, Portland, and Boston in order to illustrate motivating and guiding factors behind municipal food truck policy. Each city has a different history of, and relationship to mobile food vending, and therefore collectively the vignettes may serve to assess how food truck policies might relate to increasing social justice in practice.

Food and cultural identity formation

One possible reason to explain why food trucks have come to be so strongly associated with ethnocultural cuisines is that food is an essential element of both individual and cultural identity formation (Fischler, 1998). Although it is common knowledge that cuisine is culturally related, anthropological studies affirm that food choices are shaped by individual, cultural, historical, social, and economic influences (Koc and Welsh, 2001). However, cultural or personal identity is not fixed, because “culture is predicated on difference and on otherness and is a complex, dynamic, and embodied set of realities in which people (re)create identities, meanings, and values” (Agyeman and Erickson, 2012, 359). With this understanding, food choices are not insignificant: because identity is fluid rather than fixed, it influences people’s daily choices in how they construct themselves in relation to “Otherness” (Koc and Welsh, 2001).

Food is therefore an especially important opportunity for daily choice that marginalized groups can use to navigate and negotiate their Otherness and thus develop community and individual cultural identity. As it relates more specifically to food businesses, food can be a means of cultural communication. As Slocum notes, “eating ethnically cannot be completely written off as ‘liberal pretense’ because culinary connections have the potential to show people the stakes involved in eating” (Slocum, 2007). Even the “fusion” cuisines of modern food trucks are therefore lessons in cultural navigation and negotiation, as they represent the blending and creation of new identities. As will be elaborated later, the history of Los Angeles’ loncheras in particular shows how these food trucks served as tools for building and supporting marginalized communities, as well as supporting individuals entry into these communities. If cities can recognize and effectively support this sort of cultural identity formation through municipal food truck policy and programming, then perhaps they can also contribute to the goals of greater social justice.

Food truck policy and postmodernism

To explain why food trucks provide a unique opportunity for achieving greater social justice is to understand food trucks as a uniquely postmodern phenomenon. Why does postmodernism fit into a discussion of social justice? The conditions and challenges of postmodernism mirror those of social justice. Postmodernism is characterized by the blending of modes and uses, as well as the undermining and de-centering of authority and traditional sources of knowledge. Postmodern planning entails the “demise of… large-scale, comprehensive, and integrated planning models… for metropolitan regions” (Harvey, 1989, 40).

The appropriation of streets and parking lots as places of business or cultural navigation and negotiation similarly challenges modernist modes of governance and urban planning and policymaking that call for orderliness and authoritative zoning. Food trucks are also a postmodern phenomenon from the consumer’s perspective. They are popular due in part to their rebelliousness, messiness and informal imagery; this element reflects the fact that “postmodernism… is concerned first and foremost with the individual’s attempt to regain control over their lives – control that is lost in today’s society of mass-production factories and corporate offices” (Cross, 2000, 41).

Moreover, the trends associated with food trucks – ‘fusion’ cuisine, interest in food sourcing, the gourmet-ifying of street food – all reflect postmodernism’s mixing of high and low culture as well as the challenge to traditional and corporate hegemony. In planning, this relates to the postmodern theme of the “collage city” (Harvey, 1989, 40). Needless to say, the relationship between mobile food vending and municipal governments has sometimes had a difficult history.

While Los Angeles’ food truck controversies are based on the conflict between the older loncheras and the newer gourmet food trucks, in other cities like Chicago, brick-and-mortar restaurants have argued that food trucks have an unfair competitive advantage by vending on public space in city streets. Although they differ in the details, each food truck controversy is essentially a ‘turf war’. Food trucks exacerbate ‘normal’ food business competition by adding an entirely new element to the equation: the use of public space for private business operation. This conflict over public space usage reflects the anti-authoritarian role of postmodern governance, whereupon planning embraces both Jane Jacobs’ pluralism (Harvey, 1989, 40) and Derrida’s différence (Derrida, 1976) to create cultural meaning.

Community economic development

Another way in which food trucks can potentially facilitate the goals of social justice is through strategies of CED. CED is an economic development strategy that aims to improve the quality of life and economic position of community members. It is primarily concerned with who benefits from development efforts. CED associates with social justice through its tendency to focus on disadvantaged communities, with “solutions… rooted in local knowledge and led by community members” (Barringer, 2012). In our research into CED frameworks, we came across The Neechi Foods Worker Co-op in Manitoba, Canada whose Guiding Principles align with goals of CED (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: CED Guiding Principles, Neechi Foods Worker Co-op.

  1. Use of locally produced goods and services
  2. Production of goods and services for local use
  3. Local reinvestment of profits
  4. Long-term employment of local residents
  5. Local skill development
  6. Local decision-making
  7. Public health
  8. Physical environment
  9. Neighborhood stability
  10. Human dignity
  11. Support for other CED initiatives

Considering that economic development is commonly cited by municipalities in support of food trucks, we began to wonder if any of any of the Neechi Foods Worker Co-op’s CED Guiding Principles are aligned with motivating factors behind food truck development. If they are, then there are albeit perhaps implicit rather than explicit, social justice implications to food trucks as CED strategies.

To analyze food truck policy and programming along CED criteria necessitates defining more specific questions. Firstly, a discussion of social justice would be incomplete without mentioning issues of race. Slocum and others (see Alkon and Agyeman, 2011; Guthman 2008a; Guthman 2008b) warn that whiteness can potentially interfere with community food projects – that the “presence of people of colour in white food spaces and their interest in alternative food practice does not make community food less white” (Slocum, 2007, 2). Does the involvement of white people, be that as the operators of “gourmet” food trucks or municipal bureaucrats, insert too much whiteness into street food and thus reduce its potentials as a vehicle for increasing social justice?

Aside from race, another important issue for social justice concerns power. Cross’s analysis of informal food economies (2000) looks at the role of power in defining economic activity. He notes that the “distinction between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ economic behavior is not a matter of laws or rules, but of definition, motives, and power” (Cross, 2000, 32). Although Cross is speaking to the difficulty of defining the informal economy, this argument also attests to the importance of determining who is benefitting from CED: Who is really in power? Whoever has the power to determine the direction and extent of economic activity is going to have the most control over who is benefiting from it.

Lastly, at its most basic, CED is concerned with wealth. Therefore, we must ask if food trucks are a component of the food system that makes a contribution to local wealth in a sustainable way. Borrowing from the Oakland Food Retail Impact Study (Laurison and Young, 2009): Do food trucks represent business practices that contribute to community well-being? Do food trucks create good jobs for neighborhood residents and throughout the supply chain? How can food trucks contribute to a healthy, clean environment?

While the questions we are asking are far more complex and profound than can be answered in a short Blog posting, we now turn to our vignettes and ask, to what extent do they guide us toward answers to our questions?

Food truck vignette #1: Portland, OR

food-cart-lead-lrgjpg-b42a8f82eb9dc88dNumbering over 475 (Williams, 2011), Portland, Oregon’s food carts are praised for “their interesting and often innovative cuisine” as well as “their strong association with the unique culture of the city and the vibrant urban spaces they create” (Newman and Burnett, 2013, 237). The motivating factors behind Portland’s promotion of street food are job creation, promoting gourmet food culture, promoting interculturalism, small business incubation, brownfield redevelopment, and street vitality and “neighborhood livability” (Kapell, et. al., 2008, 4). Portland’s long history of mobile food vending means that it is unique among other cities in the volume of research that has been conducted about it (see Newman and Burnett, 2013 for an accessible summary). Most of this research attests to the economic benefits attained by food cart owners, a majority of whom are minorities or immigrants (Kapell, et. al. 2008).

Other findings point to Portland’s food carts’ contribution to street vitality and “neighborhood livability” (Kapell, et. al. 2008, 4). While these findings are important indicators of social justice because they imply that economic benefits are controlled and accrued within the community itself, we must also look at Portland’s food truck policies to understand why it is so successful in this regard. Although regulations do exist to enforce health and safety standards (Newman and Burnett, 2013), Portland’s mobile food vending policy is a uniquely hands off, laissez faire approach where “the city was intelligent enough not to get too involved” (Adams Beresky, 2011, 32). Combined with the number of thriving minority-owned food carts, Portland’s lack of bureaucratic regulation offers the postmodern twist that really cements its food cart scene as a vehicle of social justice.

Food truck vignette #2: Los Angeles, CA  

03taco01_650-1-605x418Like Portland, Los Angeles also has a long history of mobile food vending; food trucks first appeared in the 1980’s with a wave of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadorean immigrants who brought their home countries’ street food traditions with them (Bhimji, 2010). The immigrant-owned loncheras, or taco trucks, soon became ubiquitous throughout southcentral L.A.

Loncheras have the potential to contribute to increased social justice because they are active participants in the community and in the cultural identity building of their customers and operators. As far as the customers go, in an automobile-dominated environment devoid of much street life, the Latino/a street vendors and the food trucks lend vibrancy to the quiet parks, street corners, and strip malls, such that people stop to eat, chat, and line up as they wait for their favorite taco or tamale or raspada. (Bhimji, 2010, 461). So not only do loncheras build community to the human level, but they also contribute to the cultural identity formation of their immigrant owners.

Bhimji notes that female street vendors, although officially unrecognized and criminalized, gain a “sense of citizenship and belonging through their varied experiences and struggles” (Bhimji, 2010, 457). Street vendors, especially those who operate illegally, can be understood as political agents because they refuse to be constrained by structural forces and thus display agency (Bhimji, 2010). By extension, food trucks are also unconstrained by traditional strategies, be that the legality of vending permits or the brick-and-mortar restaurant model. Despite these gains, Los Angeles’ food truck policy has created some problems for loncheras, thereby limiting potentials for increased social justice through street food. Prior to the 1990s, Los Angeles was the only major US city where illegal street vending was a criminal act (Bhimji, 2010). When efforts were finally made to legalize street vending, the result was a prohibitively expensive and inaccessible permitting process. LA’s “taco truck wars” began in 2008 when the LA County Board of Supervisors passed new regulations that designated areas of permit enforcement primarily where loncheras were located (Hernandez-Lopez, 2011).

With an inaccessible food truck policy and the recent popularity of street food, Los Angeles’ street food scene resembles food truck hierarchy. At the top are the newer “gourmet” food trucks that are fully licensed and cater to Los Angeles office workers and club scene. Behind them are the traditional immigrant-run loncheras, which may be licensed but “struggle financially to keep up with the city’s ever changing regulations” (Bhimji, 2010, 470).  Like Portland, Los Angeles’ street food scene originated with immigrant operated businesses that provided opportunity for cultural and community formation, as well as for job and financial security. Defying modernist forms of government control, loncheras carved a space for Latino immigrants in Los Angeles. However, any promises of increase social justice that LA’s street food origins heralded were eventually dashed by heavy government regulation. While Los Angeles does promote street food for the sake of job creation and social mobility, the trendiness of its food trucks also means that promoting gourmet food culture and urban social life (Wessel, 2012) are other motivating factors that are perhaps less social justice oriented.    

Food truck vignette #3: Boston, MA  

MG_9038Mobile food vending is a relatively recent phenomenon in Boston. An effort of Mayor Thomas Menino’s Office of Food Initiatives, the 2011 Mobile Food Truck Ordinance spelled out the legality of food truck vending in the city. Prior to the ordinance, a small fleet of food trucks operated in Boston on private property and for special events. Motivated by food trucks’ trendiness, as well as their association with small business incubation, job creation, and quality of life, Boston’s food truck policy established a system for permitting trucks to vend on public property, in a number of preselected sites (City of Boston, 2011). The program lists a number of goals that can potentially lead to greater social justice: environmentally friendly practices, community engagement, healthy food choices, and vending in underserved communities (City of Boston, 2011).

While the policy has been successful insofar as the increasing number of food trucks that have opened up in the past few years, as the program grows, the city would do well to be wary of overregulation. As an intern in the Office of Food Initiatives in 2012, Hannah Sobel’s impression of Boston’s food truck program is that it is still based around a difficult permitting process, especially for non-native English speakers. If a complicated permitting process makes it difficult for certain groups to participate, then Boston’s food truck scene is limited in terms of both community economic development and postmodern governance, the two factors we identified as essential indicators of the potential for increasing social justice. Fortunately, the city’s programming includes a yearly survey of food truck operators; the data from these surveys will be essential to identifying where Boston’s food trucks meet or fall behind in the realm of increasing social justice.


Informed by the frameworks of cultural identity formation, postmodernism, and community economic development among others, mobile food vending has the potential for increasing social justice. If a food truck can positively affect immigrant or minority cultural identity formation, support a community’s local economy, and be supported through postmodern forms of city governance, then its potential for being a vehicle for increased social justice is very real. However, as our vignettes of three food truck cities show, actually reaching the goal of increased social justice is very difficult. The trouble is that food trucks are such a recent phenomenon in most cities and thus many cities appear to be forming their food truck policies through trial and error, not through a conscious and intentional focus on increasing social justice.

Furthermore, as evidenced by the challenges of cities like Boston and Los Angeles, racism, modernism, and traditional economic models are still forces that threaten to limit food truck policy contributions to greater social justice. While not every city can form a more socially just food truck scene organically, like Portland’s, Boston’s annual food truck audit and the grassroots movement on behalf of loncheras’ rights (Hernandez-Lopez, 2011) are promising signs that these challenges are at least being addressed to some extent.

Lastly, the multifaceted approach to measuring social justice (evaluating cultural identity formation, community economic development, and postmodern governance) makes its analysis a complex process. However, such complexity is worthwhile when increased social justice is at stake. Planners interested in food systems, sustainability, and justice would do well to pay attention to the policy, planning and practical challenges and opportunities inherent in the recent food truck phenomenon.

Hannah Sobel and Julian Agyeman

Hannah Sobel is a graduate student at Tufts University pursuing a dual degree MA in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning and MS in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition.


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  1. Jesse on April 23, 2024 at 10:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing this blog posts about “Food Truck”, it helps me a lot. I want to have my own food truck soon, by the way i also read this blog containing the same topic. I want to know your thoughts about it

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