Behind the National Mall’s Thriving Food Truck Scene Lies a Parade of Immigrants
By Chantal de Macedo Eulenstein, JCamp 2023 — Washington D.C.
I got free ice cream. It came from a food truck vendor who lost everything in Jordan and moved to America in hopes of paying off his debt.
“In Jordan life is better, but here in America is where the money is,” he said.
His story is not uncommon. In food truck after food truck that lines Constitution Avenue on the National Mall stands another immigrant behind the cutout window.
As of 2015, slightly over half of street vendors have been reported to be immigrants according to the Institute for Justice. In D.C their origins are diverse, including countries such as Egypt, India, and Guatemala. Street vending offers immigrants, especially those with less formal education, an accessible path to a source of income. Very few see it as a long-term position.
“I want to get back to study,” said Selbin, a Guatemalan immigrant who has been working at a Latin American-themed food truck for over six years. He hopes to return to study nursing next year, among other aspirations.
“I want a restaurant, and a future,” Selbin said.
For others, the job is a side hustle. An Indian student studying for his masters in software engineering at Wilmington University in Delaware, has been working for the past four months at an ice cream and bubble tea truck.
The immigrants’ experiences are diverse.
Some have been in America for only three months, others — like Selbin — for more than half a decade. Very few that work behind the cutout window are owners, who often purchase multiple food trucks and go from truck to truck during the day.
Mohammed, a halal food vendor, is one of the exceptions. He both owns and operates his own food truck. Six months ago, Mohammed began working with a friend, but didn’t know if he wanted to continue with the business. His friend, however, continued to push him to become a street vendor.
Competition among food truck vendors is fierce. Most have similar menus and parking space in heavily-trafficked areas is limited.
“I just started this business because I like to cook,” Mohammed said. His top dishes are his chicken and his beef shawarma, which he tries to differentiate from the many other halal food vendors through his seasoning. “Many customer[s] ask me ‘Do you have [a] restaurant?’, I said ‘One day’.”
Mohammed steeps his business in his faith, making a point not to sell or cook pork. He offers free meals to the homeless.
“When you’re sitting here and see people looking through the garbage, this really [breaks] your heart,” he said. “[I’m] more than happy to give [free meals] to them. [It’s] no problem because you will never be more generous than the God.”
But for most, street vending remains solely a source of income. Immigrants see it either as an opportunity to fund their futures, or as a way back home. The vendor from Jordan hopes to return in as little as three years.
His favorite thing to make at the food truck?