FAO maps out future activities in nutrition,
Street food: small entrepreneurs, big business
Ready-to-eat foods sold by street vendors in the cities of
the developing world contribute significantly to food
security and nutrition. The food is physically and
economically accessible to most people and can help in
meeting basic energy and nutrient needs. Millions of people
prepare and sell street food for a living. However, for the
street food sector to keep pace with rapid urbanization and
for problems of food quality and safety to be overcome, new
policies and actions are urgently needed.
hygiene such as the washing of hands is an
important factor in the preparation and
distribution of street food. Many school children
rely on street food to provide healthy meals away
FAO's Committee on World Food
Security, which met from 14 to 18 April in Rome, has
recommended measures to improve the situation within the
framework of anti-hunger commitments made at the World Food
Summit, held in Rome last November.
"In view of urban growth in the developing world, street
foods are here to stay," said John Lupien, Director of FAO's
Food and Nutrition Division. "They carry with them great
benefits and some possible risks. On the plus side, they
provide nutritious food at low prices and employment to many
people. The problems relate to possible food safety risks,
waste disposal and traffic blockages."
FAO studies show that, from Bogota to Bombay, selling snacks
and whole meals on the streets is an important way to obtain
income, especially among poor women. Street food is big
business. In Calcutta, the 130,000 street food vendors make
an estimated profit of nearly US$100 million per year. In
Latin America and the Caribbean, studies showed that average
monthly sales per vendor were within a range of US$150 to
US$500. In Bangkok, it is estimated that 120 000 vendors
purchase between US$16 and US$41 of raw material per day
each, stimulating the local economy.
The vendors are people who would otherwise most likely be
unemployed. Women are often owners or employees of street
food businesses, in certain regions representing 70 percent
to 90 percent of vendors. A majority of women interviewed in
FAO studies said that they sold food in the street primarily
to improve the food security of their household and for a
degree of financial independence.
Street food consumers come from all levels of society. In
Kinshasa, Zaire, a recent study found that while 38 percent
of consumers came from low income groups, 62 percent lived
in apartments and individual homes. In Abidjan, Côte
d'Ivoire, a recent study of street food customers revealed
that while 15 percent were unemployed, 51 percent were
educated and employed.
Even school children depend on street food. School canteens
in Chonburi, Thailand and Iloilo, Philippines, use local
street food vendors to supply the daily light meal. In
Ile-ife, Nigeria, 96 percent of elementary school children
typically buy their breakfast from street vendors.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how nutritious street foods
can be. A study in Calcutta revealed that an average (500
gram) meal containing 20-30 g of protein, 12-15 g of fat,
174-183g of carbohydrates and providing approximately 1 000
calories could be purchased for only US$0.25 on the street.
In Bogor, Indonesia, a study showed that it was possible to
obtain almost half the recommended daily allowance of
protein, iron and vitamins A and C from a meal also costing
The latest number of the FAO journal Food,
Nutrition and Agriculture focuses on the growth
of street food businesses around the world. Seven
papers cover street food in Africa, Latin America,
Calcutta and Bangkok, the importance of women in
the sector, children's consumption of street foods,
and appropriate technologies for safe street foods.
This publication is free and can be ordered
direct from FAO (ISSN 1014-806X).
Another FAO publication reporting on a Technical
Meeting on Street Foods in Calcutta in 1995 is also
available by mail order . The meeting reviewed
progress made around the world in improving the
quality and safety of street foods and updated
guidelines for further work in this field. The
title of the publication is Street Foods: FAO Food
and Nutrition Paper 63, ISBN 92-5-003959-X, and the
price is US$10.
In fact, street foods may be the least expensive and best
method of obtaining a nutritionally balanced meal outside
the home, provided that the consumer is informed and able to
choose the proper combination of food.
The picture, of course, is not all rosy. Street food vendors
are frequently unlicensed, blocking pedestrian or vehicular
traffic. Vendors are often untrained in food hygiene or
sanitation, working under very crude and unsanitary
conditions. This can cause food poisoning through
microbiological contamination. In Selangor, Malaysia in
1993, two cholera outbreaks were linked to street food.
Since 1989, FAO has embarked on a series of actions aimed at
improving the street food sector, in cooperation with the
World Health Organization, other UN agencies and a wide
range of interested non-governmental organizations.
"We believe these problems can be resolved and the benefits
of the street food industry maximized," said Mr Lupien. "We
urge municipal authorities to cooperate with the street food
vendors so that a better system can be developed with good
quality and safe foods being sold, proper waste disposal,
safe water supplies and reduced interference with
The Organization has focused on updating codes of hygienic
practice as well as other food safety recommendations, and
informing and training enforcement personnel on how to apply
them. Action has also been taken to organize the vendors in
order to provide training opportunities, facilitate their
access to loans and increase their cooperation with local
authorities. Consumers are also educated in nutrition.
The World Food Summit, which attracted representatives of
186 countries, including 82 Heads of State or Government, to
Rome in November 1996, pointed out that over the next 10 to
20 years, food distribution in urban areas in many countries
will have to be increased by at least three percent on
average each year. Street foods will therefore have the
prospect of rapid expansion.
In order to support the goals of the World Food Summit to
reduce world hunger by at least half by 2015, FAO's
Committee on World Food Security, a consultative body
composed of representatives of FAO member countries,
endorsed the following recommendations on street food:
- conduct city-by-city assessments of the street food
sector to gather data needed for formulating public
- undertake further research on nutritional improvement
of street foods
- take immediate action to improve the quality and
safety of street foods
- support training and educational programmes for
vendors in sanitation and food hygiene
- encourage the establishment of regional databases on
street foods so that governments can profit by the
experiences of neighbouring countries.
21 April 1997