Jakarta is becoming better-known for both its wide variety of high-quality restaurants which have increased the possibilities for fine dining substantially and for its abundance of street food. Like many capitals in Southeast Asia, Jakarta has a range of eating options that reach these two extremes and those that span many levels in between.
While not a betting person, I would assert that for the average Indonesian the latter venue, the warung, or food stall, is more familiar than the five-star fine-dining restaurant. As a result, I also would assume that to assess the nation’s health, monitoring what can be bought in food stalls is more important than monitoring what five-star restaurants are producing.
Is it true that street-based food stalls produce cheap and cheerful food, or is it just cheap and nasty? Are we talking about available, nutritious and healthy food or convenient, nutrient-deficient and not more than cheap, stomach-filling food?
First, food safety is still a big issue, as some vendors look to make fast profit out of their fast food with scant regard for consumer safety.
It is not uncommon to hear of visits to local markets in Jakarta by officials from the Trade Ministry ending up with arrests of vendors for using chemical preservatives that are potentially hazardous to consumers’ health, with chemicals being added to staple foods such noodles, meat, tofu and a variety of drinks to increase their shelf life.
Some foods were found to contain chemical ingredients completely unfit for human consumption such as formalin, borax and rhodamine, a red dye more commonly used in textile coloring. When added to the unhygienic methods of handling food or cleaning utensils, it isn’t surprising that outbreaks of food poisoning are not uncommon.
While by far the majority of the vendors will not use such obviously cynical ways to make money, most do not consider the nutritional aspects of the food they sell and the potential long-term harm that comes as a result. Indonesia’s overall nutritional status is a growing concern. The State of the World’s Mothers Report 2012 revealed that 40 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth because of severe malnutrition.
As well as undernourishment, Indonesia is beginning to face the opposite problem of obesity, especially in children. A survey released by the Health Ministry at the end of 2010 found that 14 percent of Indonesian children under the age of 5 were overweight. The same report found that another 9.2 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 were overweight. What role street food plays in these statistics is still unclear, but much of the food produced there is oily, sugar-laden, carbohydrate-filled or all three: filling, therefore, but not nutritious.
One reason given for why these foods are popular, despite having little nutritional value, is that they are accessible. A project run by US-based nongovernmental organization Mercy Corps in Jakarta found that while mothers learned a lot about nutrition, they continued to feed their babies and small children the same foods which contain high levels of sugar and fat, diets which lack the nutrients children need to grow, because the foods “walked by the door” and the children wanted them.
In recognition of these realities, the government of Indonesia has recently invested in outreach programs, including breastfeeding programs at local health centers that try to teach mothers about the value of nutrition for them and for their babies and about why going the extra mile to provide nutritious food is critical.
Despite the successes of many years of similar programs and policies encouraging good diet, why do so many children and adults continue to consume food that they know contains high levels of fat, salt and not enough vitamins and minerals? Nutritional knowledge is clearly not enough to solve these problems.
Somewhere between living with a tight belt and outright poverty is arguably a more sustainable cause of poor diet. Street food is undeniably cheaper than eating in restaurants. Eating street food can also often work out cheaper than shopping at the supermarket and cooking at home, and if you eat exactly the amount you buy from a street vendor there is no waste. Buying in supermarkets and even in local markets usually means buying a large amount at once, perhaps more than a family can afford or needs.
Furthermore, in the poorest of families access to a kitchen is also limited, so many simply turn to readily available street food for some or even all of their meals. A vicious cycle ensues: many of Jakarta’s poor children grow up without becoming accustomed to fresh food and parents don’t provide it, so street vendor food is all that the children know and crave.
So what can be done? It is likely to take a series of coordinated approaches to see sustainable improvement in the way impoverished families feed themselves. First, the government needs to take even stronger action against illegal street vendors and suppliers who currently provide food that is dangerous to our health. The ultimate goal is full licensing, though a gradual approach would be sensible.
Mercy Corps has already shown it is possible to raise the nutritional standards of street food and has even spun off a business selling niche street food with menus designed by nutritionists. How you encourage street vendors to sell more nutritious food knowing that buyers will buy sweet, fried or filling foods is a harder sell. Outreach programs that raise awareness of the benefits of nutritious food will encourage parents and children and alike to request better and more healthy food. Vendors may then sell it.
Good quality food is a basic and everyday need that seems to have taken a back seat in the country’s capital. With stronger support for these combined efforts at all levels, we may soon be experiencing our first five-star food stalls.
Maxine Carr is a researcher at Strategic Asia, a consultancy supporting economic collaboration between Asian countries. She can be contacted at email@example.com.