Vancouver Wants Nutrition Standards for Street Food Carts

The city of Vancouver has heard a report that there should be more street food vendors in Vancouver to join the Roaming Dragon at Kits Point. Photograph by: Jon Murray, PNG
By JEFF LEE | Vancouver Sun
The city of Vancouver has heard a report that there should be more street food vendors in Vancouver to join the Roaming Dragon at Kits Point. Photograph by: Jon Murray, PNG

Vancouver may be known as the quintessential West Coast city where battered fish and chips is as much a comfort food to its residents as poutine is to Montrealers.

But you won’t find those deep-fried golden slabs with tartar sauce at any of the city’s street food vendor stands. At least not without vegetables or fruits on the side.

That’s because Vancouver is going to apply “minimum nutritional standards” to the food carts it licenses as part of an expansion of its street food vendor program. In doing so, Vancouver will become the first city in Canada — and quite possibly North America — to apply minimum standards for what it considers wholesome nutritious food that can be bought on the street.

Along with nixing things like stand-alone chip stands and not approving any more hotdog vendors, the city won’t look favourably on people who want to sell items that are high in sodium, fat or sugar when it opens the door to new street food licenses next month.

But if vendors want to throw on some healthy extras like vegetables, fruits — even sauerkraut — that balance out that cholesterol-laden gourmet beef patty or other high-fat food, they may just get past the city’s food police.

“Our goal is to provide more diverse, healthier food options on the street,” said deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston. “It’s not just about providing healthy foods, it’s about diversity, improved food access and affordability.

The city is recommending to city council that it expand the number of street food vendors from 80 now to 140 over the next four years. It also wants to pilot a project to have 20 mobile vendors — similar to ice cream trucks or bicycles — offering a range of non-prepackaged foods. And as part of the entire proposal, it wants vendors to offer items that aren’t going to cake a person’s arteries or cause a heart-attack on the street.

Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer sees nothing wrong with the city acting as Big Mother.

“If somebody wants to sell a deep-fried Mars bar or whatever, that’s their prerogative. But when you are using public streets or public space or land to sell food on, I think you should be using to promote the goals of the public body and one of our goals is around nutritional outcome,” she said.

The city’s move toward better street food choices began last year when it approved 17 pilot food stands that offer anything but hotdogs. With the vast majority of the city’s existing 60 licenses devoted to the dog, the city wanted diversity. It gave life to street burritos, dim sum, elk burgers, Satay, even southern barbecue. But every one of those had to meet minimum standards as set by community nutritionists at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

That rigour is now going to be applied to all new license applications. Johnston said he isn’t ruling out the possibility of a fish and chips stand making it to the street. But if it does, it is because it has included healthy options that make it more palatable.

“It is all of the deep frying that makes it an unhealthy choice,” he said. “Just like there is a healthier way to do hotdogs, there is a healthier way to do fish and chips. I would wager you will get some pretty creative solutions. This is a very creative food town.”

Johnston said the new diversity of food on the street helped convince at least six hotdog vendors to change or expand their menu, and he’s hoping that as time goes on the number of hotdog stands will decline. But he says the city has no agenda to get rid of all the hotdog vendors.

At least one new street food cart approved last year does offer a version of fish and chips, and even poutine. Fresh Local Wild operates a cart at Robson and Granville and on its menu are salmon and a “chanterelle poutine.”

But for the diehards who are determined to eat battered fish and chips while sitting on a park bench, there are still — for now — some secret seasonal places. Joyce Courtney, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver park board, says the city’s concessions stands in Stanley Park, Spanish Banks, Locarno Beach and New Brighton Park still have fish and chips on the menu.

But the park board has given way to some healthier choices. It now offers paninis and some gourmet foods. It has also switched its concession deep fryers to canola and their fish meet the Oceanwise label for sustainable fisheries.