Berkeleyan: A newspaper for faculty and staff at UC Berkeley
Berkeleyan Home Search Berkeleyan Berkeleyan Archive UCB News UCB Calendar

 Stories for April 1, 1998:

Food on the Run Around the Globe

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 1, 1998

If you’ve ever had a falafel from a food cart at Bancroft and Telegraph or a hotdog with mustard at a boardwalk, you’ve taken part in a worldwide phenomenon. It’s called “street foods,” meals and snacks sold on the street for immediate consumption, and it’s part of life from Bangladesh to Berkeley.

Irene Tinker, professor of women’s studies and city and regional planning, has studied street foods for the better part of two decades. Her book “Street Foods: Urban Food and Employment in Developing Countries” was completed with the help of a campus research grant and a residency at the Bellagio Center of the Rockefeller Foundation. Published last year by Oxford University Press, it is currently making its way into the hands of international development specialists and policy makers.

With half the world’s population living in cities by the year 2000, according to the World Bank, accurate information on urban food practices and systems is critical to feeding the world in the 21st century. The culmination of 15 years of research in seven provincial towns in Africa and Asia, “Street Foods” provides data and analysis on an important aspect of urban food production and consumption.

As components of the Street Foods Project have been completed and reports of its findings disseminated, they have been used to improve the income of street food vendors and to persuade national authorities and international agencies to value these microenterprises.

The project began at the Equity Policy Center (EPOC), a small Washington, D.C., think tank that Tinker founded in 1978 (she is still its president). EPOC documents how economic development impacts women and men differently and designs ways to help women attain greater equity with men.

Tinker and her EPOC colleagues recognized that with rapid economic transformation, women in developing nations increasingly bore the responsibility of providing family subsistence while the men earned income.

They discovered that women in many developing countries prepare and/or sell street foods to help support their families. In Senegal, for example, thousands of women are among the vendors selling cowpea fritters, millet porridge and flavored ices on the streets. In the Philippines, male and female entrepeneurs offer lumpia, eggs, corn on the cob and banana burgers.

Research Influencing Policy

The Street Foods Project, with funding from U.S. AID and the Ford Foundation, gathered data in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Egypt, Senegal and Nigeria.

Local research teams observed the street foods industry in each town over the course of a year, following its seasonal variations. Analysis of the information gathered was used to develop profiles of both male and female street vendors and to describe the role of women and families, the economics of their enterprises, the customers they serve and the safety and nutrition of street foods.

The resulting data provide a basis for challenging inappropriate programs, ethnocentric theories and unattainable standards, and for proposing alternative policies.

Tinker’s book documents, for instance, the critical role of water in the contamination or cleanliness of street foods. It also shows how official efforts to “crack down” on street food vendors may in fact make street foods less safe – since an entrepreneur who believes that a kiosk or cart may be destroyed by the authorities is less likely to invest in improvements that would enhance sanitation.

The standards that officials apply when they attempt to banish street food vendors are in many cases “mythical,” Tinker comments. They are imagining “a beautiful, straight Champs Élysée or Pennsylvania Avenue – with no one there,” she says.

Findings of the Street Foods Project have influenced the Food and Agriculture Organization to move away from supporting laws that restrict the sale of food on the streets and toward recognizing the value of the trade and working with the vendors for improvements.

Since the project’s completion, Tinker has returned to the various study sites to ascertain the impact of the interventions recommended by the project. In several of her Berkeley courses on microenterprise, Tinker uses street foods as a case study; in other city planning courses she has lectured on the project’s methodology and the importance of conducting comparative studies when attempting to affect government policies.

Tinker, who is retiring at the end of the semester, is editor of a new anthology by scholars from Asia and the United States, “Women’s Changing Rights to Land and Housing in Vietnam, Laos and China.” Funded primarily by UC’s Pacific Rim program, it is scheduled for publication by Westview later this year.

Next on her agenda is research on women’s use of land in the same three countries, and the environmental impacts of their activities, both in rural and urban settings.

[ Back to top ]

UCB Home
Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail