Esther Kang | Contributor | Neon Tommy/the online publication of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism | http://bit.ly/w1OA36
At least one district employee expressed concern' with Diana's Ice Cream truck, which is seen in this photo vending closer to a school than the law allows. (Esther Kang)
November 2, 2011 - A shrill bell punctures the enveloping silence across the John Muir Middle School campus at three o’clock, ushering out hoards of loud and uniformed sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
Just a few steps outside the front gate, the sound of another familiar bell jingles more subtly.
It is the ice cream man. A stout Hispanic man pushes his cart and inches closer to the gate, where the kids are spilling out like grains of sand.
The surrounding sidewalks resemble something of a buffet line. One lady is selling Doritos out of a large garbage bag and sodas out of a blue icebox. Another is carrying prepackaged pink and blue cotton candy and a collection of inflatable toys. Another is preparing made-to-order Mexican creamed corn from a metal cart.
All of these vendors are well within 500 feet of the school. City of Los Angeles municipal code prohibits all forms of vending within 500 feet of schools between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on school days.
“It’s a serious problem,” concedes Los Angeles School Police Department Sgt. Ken Kimbrough. “Particularly in certain parts of the city, vending is a red target.”
This area – on Vermont and Slauson – is definitely one of them.
As the second largest public school system in the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District holds nearly 1,000 regular schools; the number of police and patrol officers overseeing the campuses is about 250, according to Kimbrough.
“Each officer gives a warning or two if the vendor is too close to the school,” he explains. “They’ll tell them to move across the street, especially if it’s a new person. After the first strike, the officer will probably ticket the vendor.”
The effectiveness of issuing warnings is questionable, says Alma Richardson, a Los Angeles Department of Transportation employee.
Richardson has been working as the crossing guard for eight years next to Budlong Avenue Elementary School, which is just behind John Muir Middle School. During this time, she says she has observed a repetitive game of cat-and-mouse between school police and street vendors.
“When these guys see the blue and white car, they’ll move,” she recounts. “And when it leaves, they’ll come right back.”
Richardson is unable to hide her distaste for one particular vendor, who is just across the street from her crosswalk.
“This is the main one, and this is their corner,” she says, pointing to a yellow metallic van with an enormous decal of a skipping SpongeBob plastered next to the window. Its menu is something of a Hansel-and-Gretel paradise: it sells anything and everything, including Skittles, Twix bars, ring pops, hot dogs, Doritos and banana splits.
Diana’s Ice Cream, as it’s called, claims that spot every day from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., from the time elementary kids get out of school until the “big kids” are dismissed, Richardson says.
For many of the van’s regular customers, buying junk food is not so taboo. Rather, most of its younger customers are accompanied by their parents.
A lady approaches the van with her two little girls. The older of the two, about 6 six years old, takes out her own wallet and shows the vendor a crumpled dollar.
She directs the man’s attention to the ring pop behind the glass. Next, she points to a spicy mango lollipop. The exchange is made, and the mother takes her under her arm.
Yesenia Cordova, whose son Juan is a fifth grader at Budlong Avenue Elementary School, says she gives her son $2 every day for after-school snacks.
“I don’t have any problem with it; at least it’s sealed,” she acknowledges as Juan munches on flaming hot cheetos. “But I won’t let him buy food from those people selling corn and stuff from their carts. They touch money and then touch the food with those same hands. I don’t see a sink there.”
For Korayma Arevalo, a senior at Manual Arts High School, it’s not a matter of packaging; it’s about authenticity.
“I’m not gonna buy something that’s been packaged for months,” Areyalo says.
About once a week, she buys homemade ice cream from a street vendor who passes by her school afterschool. She likes it because it’s fresh, familiar and not offered in stores, she says.
“They made it that morning,” Areyalo says. “I know so because most of my family are street vendors. I know how they prepare things, so I assume other people do it the same way.”
As young students continue to flock to these illegal sidewalk vendors every day after school, Richardson worries that law enforcement officers are not keeping up with the pervasive issue.
“It’s not getting any better; it’s worse on some days,” she said. “But it’s definitely not getting any better.”