This fall I made my first trip to Portland, Oregon. I have to say I was pretty excited to finally make it to the Northwest. It has gained the reputation of being the most sustainable part of the country, and after growing up in the Southeast where there seems to be very little in comparison, I was anticipating what I could learn from my visit. It was so inspiring to see a city that operated on streetcars, diverse cultural influences, and an active public realm. But refreshingly, it was also like any other city, which shows us that any place can achieve sustainability. Surprisingly, the most exciting thing I came across during my visit was the food cart.
You may have noticed that I am a big champion of sustainability in three parts: social, environmental, and economic. I was surprised how something as simple, flexible, and temporary as a food cart can affect sustainability almost as much as any other small-scale urban element I have seen. These aren’t your typical food carts. These are way more than your hot dog stand on the corner or a food truck at a little league baseball game. Portland’s food carts are feasts of cultural delicacies and creative combinations: food you’ve never tasted before!
My favorite food cart that I came across in Portland was the Grilled Cheese Grill. (My friends can tell you…I’ve been going on about it!) Check it out if you’re in Portland…http://grilledcheesegrill.com/. This was devoted to one of the most loved and simplest American dishes explored in the most creative ways. My favorite: the jalapeno popper. But what struck me more than my grilled cheese with tortilla chips and jalapenos, was how much fun it was! I ate my sandwich in the attached seating area: a school bus sitting on the side of the road. At their other location? A double-decker.
I met the owner and spoke with him about his food cart and realized what an economically sustainable business they were. He was a film director who didn’t quite make it in Hollywood who wanted to open his own restaurant. Without the income to do so, he opened up his cart as a stepping stone to his new life goal. He didn’t know how to cook but one thing…you guessed it, grilled cheese. So that’s what he did. At an affordable ground rent of $315 a month, he can run his business, not to mention live out his dream. Food carts have no doubt turned neighborhoods quiet from economic activity (especially in these times), to visited and explored parts of the city. Businesses have developed around the food carts as well. I went on a company-run “cart hopping” food tour, which took me to parts of the city that I, or probably any other tourist, wouldn’t have seen. This is clearly an economic model that is working in the recession: in 2009 the number of food carts jumped by 20%.
The socially sustainable benefits of food carts were obvious to me on my visit. Vacant lots and hidden plots of land were becoming full of people at all times of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snacks.) They were clustered, within walking distance of each other and other commercial businesses. An easily accessible social network was formed: I saw a group of friends buy their food at different carts and meet up to eat and socialize on the street. It was clear that social gatherings were beginning to revolve around the food carts, instead of the other way around.
The food cart is also an effective way in spreading culture throughout all income levels. It’s no longer down to the ballet or the opera. Food is a medium everyone enjoys and needs. Operated by individuals often times from another country, not companies, they are affordably and accessibly able to share their grandmother’s recipe with you and me. And am I grateful for it! I tried the most delicious rice, meat, leaf dish from the most rural part of Vietnam.
The environmentally sustainable benefits, if multiplied on the large-scale, could be revolutionary. Especially within lower incomes America has resorted to a “McDonalds” food culture. The food that is the most processed, the most unhealthy, and travels the most miles on our highways, is unfortunately the cheapest. Portland’s food carts can allow the most affordable, healthy, and in many cases local food is to be accessible to everyone. This can be used as a model in other cities to promote local and organic urban farming to feed those who might need it the most.
Of course a network of food carts would be challenging to introduce to any environment. There is certainly a larger culture that exists in Portland that welcomes them so freely throughout the town. You can’t plop down most of these establishments in a Wal-mart parking lot and expect the same food culture to arise. But there is no doubt that this model is so effective that in it, there has to be a lesson for us all.