Making Street Food Safer

Fulbrighters Sharmistha Banerjee and Diti Mookherjee are promoting environmentally conscious business practices among women street food vendors in Kolkata. 

Street food is as much a feature of Kolkata as is the Victoria Memorial. And women food vendors are a part of the city’s famed street food scenario. However, little attention has been paid to understanding the issues they face, and to ensure the food they serve is hygienic and safe. Sharmistha Banerjee, a Fulbright scholar and professor in the Department of Business Management at the University of Calcutta, recently conducted an intervention that showed them hygienic and environment-friendly ways of preparing, storing and serving food.

Banerjee, along with Diti Mookherjee, a Fulbright-Nehru Environment Leadership Program alumna, helped the women street food vendors identify practices that cause environmental degradation. The Fulbright Commission in India awarded Banerjee and Mookherjee a small grant, which helped them organize a workshop with the vendors to brainstorm ways to mitigate harmful practices in the course of their work. “We had initially invited 40 participants but 67 turned up,” says Banerjee. “They are used to receiving mostly top-down interventions. So, they were very happy that we were listening to them.”


The strategy
“We first did a population study to understand how many women [vendors] were there,” says Banerjee. “We realized that we needed to focus on the selling of cooked food because that’s where most of the unhygienic practices come in.” Four hundred women vendors were identified in four selected zones, and volunteers reached out to them for over three months before the workshop to establish a rapport.

In the workshop, Indira Chakravarty, a public health specialist, scholar and environmentalist, spoke on various health- and hygiene-related issues. In the second half of the workshop, the participants were divided into groups based on their locality, and set to work on issues in different areas. From the discussions and presentations, four key problem areas were identified, including food and water sanitation and food storage and packaging.


Sanitation concerns
“Water was one of the most important concerns,” explains Banerjee. “The vendors got water from different corporation-instituted taps. They used drinking water to cook, and the water used for washing was used in their toilets as well.” The lack of toilets is one of the most fundamental issues. “The corporations have set up paid Sulabh toilets,” explains Banerjee. “But paying one rupee for each use is often equivalent to paying a substantial amount from the day’s earnings. Also, the time spent in walking to these paid toilets might often mean losing customers.” These issues force women vendors to relieve themselves in areas close to where the food is being prepared, thus increasing the chances of contamination of the water and food materials. Banerjee and her team have spoken to the municipal office and requested monthly passes for women food vendors. But these passes haven’t been issued yet.


Food packaging
Another issue was the use of Styrofoam plates and containers for serving food. “Styrofoam is not biodegradable and extremely environmentally unfriendly,” explains Banerjee. But, “the usual clay cups used to serve tea and glass were cheaper and safer.” Vendors were also encouraged to get together and rent spaces to store ingredients safely.


Women taking charge
Colorful booklets with tips and pledges like “I promise to use clean water” were distributed among participants. The volunteers workshop encouraged the women to ensure that customers realize that they were using hygienic practices. For example, keeping covered water where customers can see it.

The workshop ran from January to August 2014. For the next three months, volunteers worked with the identified vendors and helped them put the new practices to use. Banerjee and her team found that many of the women street food vendors had studied till high school and were good with money. Fifty percent of the businesses were family owned, with husbands and wives running these together.

Banerjee agrees that a lot more needs to be done. “These women are simple people doing their best to make a living. They are often surrogate mothers to college students away from home and office workers who are regular customers. We need to ensure that the issues they raise are given due and constructive consideration.”


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.