Kid-friendly food carts take on child malnutrition

Indonesia

August 2, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young boy walks through the cramped, crowded quarters of a Jakarta slum. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Gunanto sells bubur ayam — chicken porridge with vegetables — to a regular customer while making friendly conversation. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Diana feeds her baby daughter healthy rice, chicken and vegetable porridge she bought from Gunanto. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

The slums of Jakarta, Indonesia are home to some of the poorest families in Asia. The city — one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with more than 28 million people — has dozens of such places, where thousands of people live cramped in close quarters. In these neighborhoods, you'll find nearly every urban challenge imaginable, from poor sanitation and insufficient water supply to precarious building codes.

But one of the biggest problems in Jakarta's many slums is child malnutrition. Most residents of these neighborhoods don't have kitchens or cooking supplies to prepare their own meals, so they purchase cheap street food that is usually high in fat and sugar, but low in protein and nutrients. As a result of this poor diet, at least 17 percent of children throughout the city suffer from acute malnutrition, as well as anemia and stunted growth. That percentage is much higher in the slum neighborhoods where poor families are concentrated.

Another problem that plagues Jakarta's poorest areas is unemployment. Many families in the slums are migrants from other areas of the country, unsuccessfully trying to find work in this fast-paced Asian capital. Some estimates put unemployment rates in poor neighborhoods at more than 30 percent.

A solution on the streets

Both of these problems — malnutrition and unemployment — are being directly addressed by a Mercy Corps program that helps food cart vendors dish out healthy food to children.

Mercy Corps launched Kedai Balitaku (KeBAL) — which translates as My Child’s Café in the Indonesian language — as a pilot program in 2009. Its initial focus was twofold: address the failing health of children in some of Jakarta's most impoverished neighborhoods through affordable, healthy food while providing job opportunities for area cooks and food cart vendors. Mercy Corps brought in a nutritionist to create an inexpensive yet nutritious menu that would appeal to families' tastes and budgets, and we worked with an advertising agency to develop colorful carts and music that would attract the attention of Indonesian children.

But the bottom line was that all this healthy eating and job creation had to be self-sustaining. So KeBAL's philosophy is that — after initial training in nutrition standards, hygiene, bookkeeping, marketing and customer service — each food cart operation would become a profitable, vendor-owned micro franchise. This philosophy has not only worked, but it's become incredibly successful: demand for KeBAL food has far outpaced supply in the eight neighborhoods where the project launched. Altogether, vendors report serving more than 5,000 regular customers every day — and averaging 30 percent profit margins on their products.

Better pay and healthy options

One such vendor, 32-year-old Gunanto, used to earn as little as 30,000 Indonesian rupiah (about US$3) doing occasional jobs such as pushing a pedicab for as many as 15 hours per day. Today, he's making at least $35 a week — enough to send his children to school and provide for all his family's needs. He also has a much shorter workday.

Gunanto's food cart is providing a valuable service to mothers like 31-year-old Diana and her baby daughter Aurelia. Diana is able to buy bubur ayam — rice porridge with vegetables — for Aurelia for only 2,000 Indonesian rupiah (about US $0.20). Before this, she was often relying on less healthy street food to meet her family's needs. She says that not only is Aurelia staying healthier, but she also prefers the taste of Gunanto's porridge to most any other food available in the neighborhood.

Having established a market niche during the pilot program stage, Mercy Corps' next step is to scale it up and include even more parts of the city — and, as a result, engage more families and entrepreneurs. Our goal is to reach 500,000 Indonesian children through this independently-owned and operated micro franchising model. We're gearing up to expand the program to 31 cooking centers and almost 250 vendors.

KeBAL is a classic example of Mercy Corps' entrepreneurial, crisis-to-opportunity approach. By creatively addressing the pressing issues of malnutrition and unemployment in Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods, we've established a sustainable model that will not only better nourish local families, but also provide reliable income for other pressing household needs.