Forbidden fruit: The trouble with those guys who sell strawberries on street corners

Over the past year, San Francisco police have been seeing a steady increase in complaints about something many people consider a victimless crime. No, it's not prostitution. We're talking about the illegal selling of fruit on sidewalks around the city.

In the Castro, the Mission, Noe Valley, and Glen Park, young Hispanic men are selling oranges, strawberries, and melons at discounted prices on residential corners.

"It's a big problem," says Officer Lorraine Lombardo, who says many of these vendors are coming from San Jose and Salinas. "They are springing up all over the city."

So why is selling fruit at great prices a "big problem"? Police say nobody knows for certain whether the unpermitted vendors' produce is safe to eat. While police have confiscated fruit from illegal vendors and issued citations, SFPD's modest enforcement measures don't seem to be acting as a deterrent. "We advise them that it's illegal, and then they leave that corner and move to another block," Lombardo says.

Among those complaining the most — or at least the loudest — about the fruit vendors are grocers in Noe Valley, who don't like the competition. "It's just not the right way to do things," says Gwen Sanderson of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "There are tons of places that sell produce, and they [the illegal vendors] are going around those who pay permitting fees and pay sales tax."

Police also get complaints from the city's more liberal residents, who accuse them of unnecessarily shooing away fruit vendors who are just trying to make a buck during hard economic times.

"There might be an element of racism to it," says Beth Weise, a Glen Park resident. "There is a [white] woman who sells figs in front of [Glen Park] BART and everyone thinks that's okay, but a young Mexican guy with strawberries is not."

But unwanted competition with local businesses and potential health threats aren't the only reasons the cops are concerned. Police believe most of these street vendors are victims themselves. Lombardo speculates that many are paying back debts to "coyotes," the people who helped them across the border. They are like slaves, she says, forced to sell fruit on the streets, making less than San Francisco's $9.79 minimum hourly wage. "This is an issue that really needs to get other agencies involved beyond the police department, like the INS, border patrol, and the health department," she said.

Perhaps roadside fruit isn't tasting so sweet after all.

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