NABM was surprises by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision to allow states to permit food trucks at the interstate rest areas. The Kennelly Amendments prohibit any retail sales at the rest areas except for vending operated by blind entrepreneurs. There are 1,100 interstate rest areas in the U.S. and 600 have vending machines operated by blind entrepreneurs. Their sales are down 80-90% during the pandemic and sales will only decline as the result of this move. The interesting thing is DOT acknowledges that the law prohibits food trucks but they have chosen to not enforce that particular provision. They state truckers who are so vitally important right now are having difficulty finding food. NABM went on record with a letter to DOT Secretary Chao. That letter is below. The rest area commercialization coalition of which NABM is a member also sent a strongly worded letter. NABM has had a number of conversations with the Assistant Secretary and we have been assured the law will be strictly enforced after the pandemic.
April 4, 2020
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Dear Secretary Chao:
I am writing on behalf of the more than 400 blind entrepreneurs who operate vending machines at the interstate rest areas. Sales from these vending machines had plummeted as you might expect; however, our hardworking blind men and women remained open to do their part in serving truckers so they can keep moving vital products such as food. The decision to allow food trucks to set up at these rest areas will all but shutdown our blind vendors.
Let me state from the beginning that we recognize this is a national emergency and extraordinary measures are required. We applaud you for doing what you thought was in the best interest of our truckers. We are willing to share in the pain and do our part to keep the food chain moving which is so vital to our nation right now. However, I think the unintended consequences will be significant. In other words, the cure may be worse than the problem.
Consider the following:
- The loss of business may force many blind entrepreneurs out of business driving them to seek other aid from the government.
- Food trucks will most likely only be at the rest areas for limited hours. If they force the blind entrepreneurs to totally shutdown, the truckers will have no service when the food trucks are not there.
- Restaurants and truck stops at the interstate exits are already hurting and can only do carryout orders. If truckers can get hot meals at the rest areas, they are less likely to stop at the exits to get food causing even more distress for the local restaurants.
Our preference would be to rescind the emergency policy that will allow these food trucks. However, as stated earlier, we want to do our part to help. However, we are asking for some consideration. Perhaps, states should be directed to give the blind entrepreneurs first priority in arranging a food truck and negotiating a reasonable commission to offset their lost sales or agree on some other arrangement. There may be other options if we put our heads together.
Our biggest concern is what happens when this crisis is over? Once trucks are permitted to do business at the rest areas, they will want to continue. Although we understand the rationale for doing this under emergency circumstances, our fear is we will have to fight to get them off once the crisis is over. And it will be over.
There is another aspect of this issue to which I’d like to bring your attention. We have had many reports of people showing up at rest areas and setting up and selling food out of a cooler or out of the back of their car. This not only threatens the income of the blind vendor but also poses a health risk to those who may partake of the food. There are strict laws and regulations on who and under what conditions food can be sold. Without having the necessary licenses, there is no assurance that food was properly prepared or transported. In fact, you can probably feel confident in surmising that it was not. We put our truckers at risk by allowing people to sell like that.
Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to discussing this with you or someone else in your department as soon as possible.
Nicky Gacos, President
The National Federation of the Blind knows that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can live the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.