From Seattle to Jakarta, food carts are hot stuff

Indonesia, May 24, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Since the spring of 2009, Mercy Corps' Kedai Balitaku program has been serving Jakarta's children healthy meals and snacks from colorful food carts. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

In Seattle, the popularity of food carts has exploded in recent years. Yet some people (mostly restaurant owners, it turns out) have in recent weeks voiced concern over proposals to expand Seattle's street food scene, citing — among other things — the health of the food on offer.

As an eager patron of the Kaosamai Thai food truck that recently began parking near Mercy Corps' offices in South Lake Union, I have to say I appreciate the new lunch option. Sure, I know that greasy noodle dishes are not doing my waistline any favors, but it's nice to switch up the brown bag lunch now and again.

Unfortunately, while I have a variety of healthy (and not so healthy) lunch options to choose from, a majority of people in Jakarta, Indonesia do not have such options.

Street food has largely replaced home cooking, as most residents lack kitchens and cooking supplies. Instead, people buy nearly all their meals and snacks from street vendors, where cheap fried and sugary food items are the overwhelming norm.

Kids growing up in this environment face severe risk of acute malnutrition and obesity, which contributes to long-term health problems. To help address this situation, Mercy Corps developed a pilot program back in spring of 2009 called Kedai Balitaku (KeBAL or "My Child’s Cafe").

Yesterday, in The New York Times opinion column "FIXES," journalist Tina Rosenberg discussed the success of Mercy Corps' innovative solution to this vexing problem.

In setting up KeBAL, Mercy Corps worked with a nutritionist to develop healthy menu items that kids would really enjoy. Marketing powerhouse Saatchi & Saatchi was brought in to create the visual branding and child-focused marketing that KeBAL needed to compete for kids' attention in the hypercompetitive street food markets of Jakarta.

After the pilot proved overwhelmingly successful, Mercy Corps invited MBA students from MIT's Sloan School of Management to visit the site and then develop a business plan that would let us take it to scale. My colleague Jennifer Schmidt blogged about the students' proposal last year, just a few months before KeBAL became a stand-alone company. Today, KeBAL is on its way to becoming, quite possibly, the most popular Child's Café in all of Indonesia.