A street vendor cooks food on a street in central Bangkok, Thailand. A crackdown by the military government has threatened Bangkok's lively street food culture. Mark Baker/AP

Netflix’s ‘Street Food’ Reveals a Thriving and Threatened Culture

In cities globally, street vendors are an essential source of food and provide critical income to women but recent crackdowns are threatening this lifestyle.

Netflix’s hit new series “Street Food” is more than a glimpse at the world’s finest street-side chefs. While other shows, most notably, Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” have featured the down-home goodness of street cuisine, “Street Food” may be the first to acknowledge the threat street-food vendors face in increasingly exclusionary cities.

Take Bangkok: It’s no surprise that the city’s globally beloved roadside vendors are the first featured in “Street Food.” But since 2014, Thailand’s military government has waged an open battle on the city’s street vendors, forcing workers to abandon their businesses or work in the shadows.  

The government’s push to clear the sidewalks is not a long-term solution. It has left a trail of social and economic hardship and, with few alternatives, many vendors return to sell in the areas where they started anyway, dodging police fines and confiscations to make ends meet.

Even as Bangkok’s approach demonstrates that forced eviction is not a workable strategy, eviction of street vendors is a common tactic around the world. At Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), we analyzed news on vendors from six continents for 18 months and the results show an alarming portrait of widespread hostility toward these workers across Africa, Asia, and Latin America; in cities from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, Lima to Lusaka. These national and local governments enact policies that ban or criminalize these jobs that workers need and services consumers demand. That’s why Netflix’s “Street Food” is timely. It reminds us why cities around the world need to embrace, not ban, street vending. And, as we explain, two very different cities—Los Angeles in the United States, and Monrovia, Liberia—have proven there is a way to make city streets and squares work for all.

Who has a right to the city?

The question of vending in public spaces has become a global debate. It has brought with it an important question about who has a right to work in cities. Sixty-one percent of the world’s workers (90 percent of workers in developing countries) are informal, and a significant number work in cities. Many of these workers—street vendors, waste pickers, motorcycle taxi drivers and food delivery workers—make their living in public space. The United Nations’s 2016 Sustainable Development Agenda directs governments to respect and support their livelihoods.

But many city governments are failing to implement these frameworks. What we are witnessing instead is a growing hostility to informal workers in urban public space and to vendors, in particular, as cities governments cave to elite interests by clearing the streets.

Street food is not just for tourists

Vendors are in public spaces not only to earn a living but as a response to an on-the-ground need. As food writer Chawadee Nualkhair says in the show’s first episode: “The vendors are there because the people want them there.”  

People in cities depend on street food. Global research shows that vending keeps city residents, especially the poorest, nourished and fed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, informal outlets like these vendors are a major source of food for urban poor families because of their convenient locations, affordable products, and their willingness to provide credit for loyal customers short on cash.  

A street vendor in the Dakar, Senegal, medina chats with her customers. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

These contributions are by no means confined to the Global South. “Green cart” programs, like in New York and Chicago, leverage vending to serve fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts—neighborhoods that are underserved by the big grocery store chains.

Street vending fills urban unemployment gaps, especially for women

While street vendors provide quick eats near homes and offices, their work is also essential to keeping their families afloat. This is evident with the story of Michelin-starred chef Raan Jay Fai in “Street Foods’” episode on Bangkok. Jay Fai’s mother supported her children as a vendor, and Jay Fai herself started cooking on the street as a last resort after losing all of her possessions in a fire. Vending gave her the chance to get back on her feet, eventually opening a small restaurant which now has lines extending out the door.

In the episode on Vietnam, restaurateur Nikki Tran reminds us that “almost one million of Ho Chi Minh City’s 10 million people make a living by selling on the street.” Indeed, vendors comprise between 9 and 24 percent of urban employment in cities where the data is available.

It’s no coincidence, either, that many of the vendors featured on the show are women. Available data shows the importance of vending and informal trade for women workers, who rely on these livelihoods to care for families. And likewise, having convenient access to produce or prepared foods helps alleviate the unequal burden of domestic labor. This means that bans and evictions directly conflict with goals to tackle poverty and reduce gender inequalities.

Some of the hostility toward street vendors comes from a perception that vendors compete with brick-and-mortar businesses. Yet evidence (including from New York and Los Angeles) suggests that vendors and small businesses often have symbiotic relationships, since vendors attract pedestrians to the street for shopping. Vendors also directly support these formal businesses through their own spending. In L.A., the Economic Roundtable estimated that direct spending by street vendors and their households creates more than 4,000 full-time employees in retail stores, groceries, and supermarkets.

In Bangkok, the recent disappearance of street markets badly hurt local storefronts, as well as wholesalers from whom vendors had previously purchased their goods. Businesses in some neighborhoods reported declines of well over half, with many shops relocating and the neighborhoods turning dark, quiet, and more dangerous. In an episode of “Street Food,” Nualkhair says about the effects of these crackdowns, “This is rupturing an eco-system that’s been in place for decades.”

Street vendors, as we have seen, are not the source of urban problems: they are often part of the solution. And vending policies for 21st-century cities need to reimagine how to include these workers as vibrant social and economic forces, as we outline in our toolkit for public authorities.

Indeed, some prominent cities are leading the way, with policies that improve neighborhoods by incorporating vending.

A Los Angeles street vendor prepares for her customers. In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council voted to legalize and regulate street vending following a long campaign. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Recently, Los Angeles’s City Council voted to decriminalize, and subsequently, to fully legalize and regulate vending. Under a new permit system still being finalized, all street vendors will be eligible to purchase permits, requiring them to pay taxes and abide by agreed rules: for instance, related to health and hygiene, sidewalk placement, and prevention of pedestrian or traffic obstruction.

City council members were responding directly to demands from the community. Throughout their decade-long struggle for this policy in L.A., vendors emphasized the need for “active streets:” places where vendors make things safer, more prosperous, and healthier by bringing people and nutritious foods to the streets.

Thousands of miles away, officials in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, signed a groundbreaking Memorandum of Understanding with the country’s street trader union, on September 27, 2018. The agreement provides licenses and registration fees for vendors, creates collaborative systems for waste management and enforcement, and imposes penalties when either party (including the police) break the agreement. Most important, it requires monthly meetings for city agencies to meet with the union to work out any kinks in implementation.

L.A. and Monrovia are extremely different in many ways, but they have both made a common, affirmative decision to capitalize on the valuable services that vending provides: creating jobs, increasing access to affordable foods and goods, activating isolated city streets, and stimulating local economies.

By making vendors legitimate business owners, these cities increase the urban tax base and reduce the need for costly evictions and enforcement. These two cities on opposite sides of the globe have worked closely with representative organizations of vendors to formulate and innovate. Their success proves that with will and collaboration locations across the world can move street-vending policy into the 21st century.

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