Marianne Moroney is executive director of the Toronto Street Food Vendors’ Association. The Newman Centre community member believes the city is strangling the industry. Photo by Michael Swan

Food vendors want justice on the streets of Toronto

  • December 28, 2011

TORONTO - Marianne Moroney wants justice on the streets of Toronto — justice that can deliver a simple, cheap, satisfying meal. As executive director of the Toronto Street Food Vendors’ Association, Moroney has been fighting city hall for the rights of Toronto’s hot dog stands.

“City councillors have set out purposely to strangle this industry,” Moroney told The Catholic Register.

Moroney is a tenacious and tireless advocate for the mostly poor, mostly immigrant hot dog sellers of the city. It’s an endless and thankless task, but she derives her inspiration from a deep instinct for communion and her attachment to the Eucharist.

“That shared experience, the commonality of the Eucharist is so wonderful,” she said. “I find that so inspiring.”

As a long-time member of the Newman Centre community on the University of Toronto campus, Moroney has extended her love of the Eucharist to others by volunteering to bring communion to residents of a downtown nursing home.

“The beauty of distributing communion is sharing our faith with somebody not able to come,” she said.

Toronto hot dog sellers have been overwhelmed with a series of ever-more restrictive by-laws, street redevelopment projects and finally the city-government conceived “A La Carte” program that gave privileged locations to a select number of new carts that were supposed to offer healthier and more ethnically interesting foods than the lowly hot dog.

A La Carte died when the cart operators discovered city red tape prevented them from making any money. But if the hot dog industry could survive a city-backed business plan to replace them,  it hasn’t been as successful fighting city efforts to regulate it out of existence.

As the city has approved street remodelling projects in gentrifying neighbourhoods, members of Moroney’s association have found their livelihoods replaced by garbage cans, benches and signs. City councillors have voted hot dog vendors out of their jobs.

Since 2001 a moratorium on new licences for downtown hot dog stands has meant displaced vendors can’t set up again at another viable location. It takes the dense population offered by office towers and hordes of shoppers to support a hot dog business.

Hot dog vendors tend to be immigrants willing to work long and hard to make a living, Moroney said. More than that, they are essential to life on the street. Searching for a charity to support, Moroney’s members came up with the Schizophrenia Society because so many hot dog vendors deal with homeless schizophrenics — often feeding them for free.

“We’re thrilled,” said the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario’s Tasha Thomas. Moroney proposed the March 22 to 26 street-level fundraiser to the Schizophrenia Society out of the blue.

“Marianne’s great. She’s so full of energy,” said Thomas.

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc seconds Thomas’s assessment of Moroney’s energy and commitment.

“She’s a very good person and a very good advocate,” said Mihevc.

Moroney and the Toronto Street Vendors are up against more than city bureaucrats and councillors with dreams of a sanitized, orderly streetscape that will look like architect drawings, said Mihevc. The real enemy is local Business Improvement Areas — organizations set up by city hall and dominated by small, often struggling, store owners. BIAs put big pressure on city councillors to at least ensure there is no growth in street vending, which the store and restaurant owners see as competition from people who don’t pay the taxes or overhead a store faces.

But the idea hot dog vendors are a threat to the tony businesses in Yorkville doesn’t really hold water, said Mihevc. In remodelling Yorkville’s streetscape over the past three years, city council banished all the hot dog stands. It was a “frankly classist” move, said Mihevc.

Moroney argues vendors add life to the street, give people a reason to spend time in the neighbourhood and ultimately benefit the brick-and-mortar businesses. She can point to studies by economists and urban planners that back her up.

When Moroney started selling hot dogs in front of Mount Sinai Hospital she was a vegetarian actress trying to even out a very uneven income stream from her theatre career.

“I never said to my parents, ‘I can’t wait to grow up to become a hot dog vendor,’ ” she said.

Before the hot dog stand, Moroney sold craft jewelry next to Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. Working there, Moroney got more than a taste of how life is lived among the young and poor out on the street. She employed street youth to help assemble necklaces, tried to teach a teenage drug dealer how to read, counselled pregnant girls, steering them to places that would help them through their pregnancies to become mothers.

As she moved on to the hot dog business in the centre of five of the biggest, busiest hospitals in Canada, she began to see two sides of the coin.

“The brightest minds in the world pass by, and some of the most challenged,” she said.

Her stand feeds research scientists, doctors, homeless people and cops. Many are family members visiting patients in the hospitals. People who have had to take time off work, drive downtown and pay downtown parking prices often don’t have the money to buy the franchise food on offer in hospital lobbies. A $3 hot dog can be a welcome relief.

“People come back to me because I serve them as if they were family,” Moroney said.

You can buy fruit and vegetables at Moroney’s cart. She would like to expand the menu more, but a city bylaw says the carts can only sell pre-cooked meats in the shape of a sausage.

In the midst of her exhausting battle for social justice, Moroney counts her blessings.

“My life has been expanded by having the opportunity to be on the street,” she said.

She looks forward to stepping down as executive director of the Toronto Street Food Vendors’ Association. That will give her time to dedicate her efforts to promoting a solar-powered world cart — a $2,000 business start-up in a box she has designed to be adapted for use in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“The street economy is vibrant and very, very important for millions and millions of people around the world,” she points out.

The street is also a place where communion happens.

“You share these stories, these moments...”

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