The two faces of Bandung’s street food: recreation and reliance

A new report highlights the central role that street food plays in the food security of low-income workers.

Bill Vorley's picture
Blog by 
Bill Vorley
Bill Vorley is a research associate in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group
07 August 2019
A food vendor is surrounded by people in a busy street

Food vendors serve factory workers outside the Kahatex textile factory in Bandung, despite this being a 'red zone' – where vendors are not  allowed. Most of the customers are low-income factory workers who live in the area (Photo: Kemal Jufri/Panos Pictures)

As in many rapidly growing cities, the role of street vendors, food stall holders and other informal food providers in Bandung –Indonesia’s fourth most populous city – is contested.

The number of street vendors grew rapidly after the economic crisis of the late 1990s – a trend that was not reversed even as the economy recovered. Initially, city authorities saw these vendors as an obstruction to the clean and orderly growth of the city and the free flow of traffic. 

Official government policy with regards to street vending has swung between repression and permissiveness. The initial approach in 2005 focused squarely on disincentives and required seven city locations to be free of street vendors and included a provision against setting up a stall and selling on a footway, park or green space. The policy had little success and most of the vendors quickly returned to the street.

More recently, policy has become more nuanced. City regulations in 2011 for the management and development of street vendors recognise the sector and support its formalisation through annual permits and relocation into designated vendor centres. 

Zoning still restricts vendors from operating on certain streets – with fines for both vendors and their customers if caught flouting the law in these 'red zones'. Also included are 'yellow zones' where street vendors can operate during certain duration and hours, and 'green zones' where relocated vendors are free to trade.

A Street Vendor Forum at sub-district level has the objective of reconciling the differing interests of street vendors, government and the community. Street food has been incorporated into the city’s promotion of culinary tourism.   

Unfinished business

But the push to formalise the sector is far from complete, and the cat and mouse between authorities and vendors continues. City officials attempt to sweep vendors from roads and pavements but cleared areas are soon reoccupied. 

These ongoing tensions are stirred up by regular reports in the press about congestion and litter. By October 2018, the head of the city’s office for cooperatives and small and medium-sized enterprises stated that only around 5,000 of the city’s 22,000 street vendors were “well organised and managed”.

Lifting the lid

A study led by a team from Bandung’s Padjadjaran University, in collaboration with IIED and Hivos as part of the Sustainable Diets for All programme, has raised some important questions about whether policymakers have overlooked the central role that street food plays in the food security of low-income workers, who underpin the city’s economy. 

An exploratory survey found two quite distinct categories of street food consumers. The first is the ‘recreational’ consumer. They purchase food from street vendors once or twice a week and spend quite a large amount – between four and 20 dollars – per visit. The second is the ‘subsistence’ consumer. This group includes the working poor. They rely on vendors and use them two to three times per day, spending less than a dollar per visit. Street food comprises 50 to 80% of total food intake. 

The research team was able to lift the lid on this second group through a study conducted with 300 women textile factory workers in the Gempol Sari area close to the large Kahatex textile factory at the western edge of Bandung. The women themselves gathered the data, recording the type and source of each of their meals over a seven-day period.

The workers, with an average age of 23, are mainly migrants from outside Bandung and live in lodgings near the factory. With limited cooking facilities and low wages, these workers rely heavily on prepared street food.

Between shifts, the street and pavements in front of the Kahatex factory are crowded with vendors and workers. In 2012, part of the road close to the factory was designated as a red zone, where street vending is prohibited at all hours, but the regulation is yet to be enforced. 

Street vending comes in many flavours, both in the area in front of the Kahatex factory and the areas around the workers’ lodgings. Some vendors operate in fixed food stalls (warung) offering a full menu of ready-to-eat main courses, to carts (pedagang kaki lima or PKL – both static and mobile) that specialise in single dishes or snacks. 

The research showed that warung were the most important food source for the women factory workers. Static street vendors were also important at lunchtime, and mobile ones more dominant in the morning and evening.  

Nutritious, affordable, accessible

The food is nutritious and affordable: on average, employees could buy a main meal consisting of rice, vegetables, tempeh, and egg for IDR7,000 – around US$0.50. Running the data through an FAO tool assessing women’s dietary diversity showed that the informal food system was providing these factory workers with a diverse as well as affordable diet.

The majority (83%) of the sampled workers had consumed items from 7-10 defined food groups the previous day, well above the five that is considered to constitute the minimum threshold for dietary diversity for this age group.

And it is accessible: the research shows that the food system of the working poor is supported by thousands of warung and pedagang kaki lima that provide factory workers with food close to their place of work and residence. 

Policy that meets people where they are

Policies to deal with the ‘street vendor problem’ often fail to recognise the social and economic value of these informal food providers.  

Attempts to regulate informal food providers are politically sensitive in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia. Given that much of the debate is informed by prejudice and assumption, evidence is key to supporting a shift in approach. Research that sheds light on the food system of the working poor can show city authorities the real value of informal trading; policies can then be adjusted accordingly. 

This work also shows the importance of understanding food choices based on the realities and experiences of low-income citizens. In food policy, evidence brought in by ‘experts’ still dominates. But if the subjects of that expert research can generate evidence themselves, they can advocate directly around their priorities, and be less dependent on others to set the agenda.

This citizen-led approach to research and advocacy is one that the Sustainable Diets for All programme will continue to champion.