FAO maps out future activities in nutrition, hygiene

Street food: small entrepreneurs, big business

Basic 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 from home.

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.

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.

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.

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 about US$0.25.

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 traffic."

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 policy
  • 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.

Other resources:


21 April 1997



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