NEW YORK — At a busy intersection in the Bronx, two sanitation workers grab whole watermelons and boxes of produce from a street vendor’s stall and toss them into a garbage truck to be crushed as police officers stand by.
Several bystanders, many speaking Spanish, object loudly to what is happening — to the woman who operates the stall and to the edible food that is being turned into trash.
“How dare he?” one person says of one of the sanitation workers.
The episode between the vendor and New York City authorities, captured in video snippets that were shared widely on social media over the weekend, highlights the continuing tension over official efforts to crack down on those who sell goods on the street without permits — despite pleas from many of them that doing so is their only way to survive.
“These people who are trying to make an honest dollar are being fined, rather than being given the tools and opportunities to formalize their businesses in the way that they’re asking to,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group.
The city capped the number of permits for selling food on the city’s streets at about 3,000 in 1983. Even the waiting list, which numbers 2,500, has been closed for nearly 15 years. Still, according to a recent report from the Street Vendor Project and another advocacy group, up to 20,000 New Yorkers earn a living selling food or other goods on the street.
Diana Hernandez Cruz, the 36-year-old woman at the center of the confrontation seen in the videos, is among them.
A single mother with three children, Hernandez Cruz immigrated from Mexico to the Bronx and has worked as a street vendor in the borough for the past five years, Kaufman-Gutierrez said.
Last Thursday, officials said, police officers and consumer-protection inspectors approached her stand, at Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road, and asked to see her permit. When she said she did not have one, she was told she would be issued a violation, officials said.
At that point, officials said, she abandoned her stand, and the Sanitation Department was called in to remove the produce.
On Sunday, Hernandez Cruz denied in a statement issued in Spanish that she had left the stall unattended.
“I was very indignant the day that the Department of Sanitation threw out pallets of fruits and vegetables from my stand, it was very unfair,” she said in the statement. “I was here present.”
Under city law, attempts should be made to donate confiscated food to those who may need it, but only after a Health Department employee signs off in its safety. In the case of Hernandez Cruz, officials said, no such determination was made.
With people yelling at them for discarding the food, the sanitation workers stopped clearing everything from the stand. When they left, Kaufman-Gutierrez of the Street Vendor Project said, Hernandez Cruz urged those who were nearby to take what remained.
Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez, a Democrat who represents the area, said the move to throw the produce into a garbage truck was especially striking given where it happened. According to one 2020 report, 1 in 5 Bronx residents experiences “food insecurity,” or a lack of reliable access to an adequate amount of affordable, nutritious food.
“People are struggling every day with food insecurity,” Fernandez said, expressing outrage over the fresh produce being “literally thrown away.”
“This constant battle against street vendors must end,” she added.
In January, the City Council took a step toward bringing relief to at least some unlicensed vendors, approving legislation that called for issuing 400 new permits a year for 10 years.
Nonetheless, authorities have cracked down in recent months on vendors who operate illegally. Enforcement had eased during the height of the pandemic, when many people turned to selling food on the street to make money after losing their jobs. Fines start at $1,000.
The beefed-up enforcement, officials have said, is a result of complaints from business owners, elected officials and others about what they say is the congestion, noise and unfair competition that unlicensed vendors pose to traditional stores and other licensed merchants.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking at a news conference Monday, said that he was disappointed by the episode involving Hernandez Cruz, adding that the produce that was thrown away should have gone to a homeless shelter or food pantry.
“I think this is a classic thing of bureaucracies not communicating and not using common sense,” he said.
In a statement, Abigail Lootens, a spokesperson for the Consumer Affairs Department, acknowledged that the way the episode had been handled was not in line with city policies. The department and other agencies, she said, would “work together to ensure this type of wastefulness does not happen again.”
Kaufman-Gutierrez said Hernandez Cruz planned to be back at her stand this week.
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