Sunday, June 22, 2014

Do Ice Cream Trucks Have an Outrageous Regulatory Subsidy?

Photo Credit: http://reisman.lohudblogs.com/
Most food trucks and food carts quietly set up shop in some high-traffic public space to make money. Ice cream trucks seem to be unique in that they're constantly moving and travel deep into residential areas. Presumably the only way these strategies are lucrative is because ice cream trucks announce their presence with a loud ring or jingle.

But why don't we see more competition in these residential areas by other food trucks? I see two possibilities. One is that the rich history of ice cream trucks and their jingles makes them uniquely identifiable to residents. If a taco truck wanted to roll through neighborhoods selling food, how would they identify themselves to customers in their houses watching tv? The norms and precedence for mobile food trucks selling anything other than ice cream just isn't there.

This possibly explains everything, but I doubt it's the whole story. It's not hard to imagine some enterprising food truck blasting a variation of an ice cream truck jingle to train new customers, or even get an initial market foothold by copying an ice cream truck jingle just to get people out of their houses (bait-and-switch).

My suspicion is that there exist some regulations restricting the ability for non-ice cream food trucks to roll around residential neighborhoods selling food and blasting music. Most food trucks are highly regulated by cities in many ways. A few years ago Washington DC had a big fight over new rules governing where food trucks could park. Other cities around the country have faced similar battles pitting incumbent restaurants and other interest groups against the relatively weak food truck establishment.

In general most of these rules restricting food trucks are too stringent. Policymakers caving to the baldly bootlegger and baptist strategy from brick-and-mortar restaurants is silly, and NIMBY complaints from neighborhood groups or other local institutions is not sufficient cause to block these innovative small businesses.

But ice cream trucks actively disrupt neighborhoods with their loud music (many neighborhoods in New York City experience Mr. Softee trucks rolling past 5-10 times per day every day from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm). It's virtually guaranteed that the introduction of a new systemic nuisance like this would result in numerous law-enforcement complaints and local collective action to block the change to the status quo.

Implicitly (due to the lack of complaints or enforcement of nuisance laws) or explicitly (due to special regulatory exemptions), ice creams trucks have a protected market position. Now, the complaints of one sensitive local resident aren't enough to justify corrective policy action, but in the context of other paternalistic public health efforts (smoking bans, calorie-count requirements, restrictions on advertising to kids, etc.), taking a hard look at the social effects of ice cream trucks' special status seems reasonable.

The idea of a toxic food environment in most urban areas is pretty well-established, and the penetration of ice cream trucks (and the obesogenic food they peddle) into low-income residential neighborhoods with populations at high-risk for metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity is clearly damaging. The proliferation of online-ordering has leveled the playing field somewhat, but the psychological nudge of an ice cream truck loudly rolling up outside the house makes consuming this food that much harder to resist among willpower-depleted populations already struggling with health issues.

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