Street Food for social change: why gourmet hipsters are just part of the story

If you walk a few hundred metres west from Old Street roundabout, the new hub of London’s tech start up culture, you hit Whitecross Street, which, at lunchtime five days a week, is bustling with queues of people waiting for some of the best street food in London. Burritos from Luardo’s or classic Roman-style food from Mario and Carol’s go for between about £5-7.

The brand strategists and social media gurus that work around here already have a huge amount of choice, able to buy pretty much anything they like at one of the many branches of Pret, Eat and Itsu or at endless cafes in the area. But in an area where many people can pay £6+ for lunch, the market is responding with more choice, higher quality and, overall, healthier food. Trendy street food is, inevitably, following its nose to lunchtime on Whitecross Street or after works drinks round Dalston Yard.

Head further east into somewhere like Forest Gate in Newham and the picture is very different. Here, workers and students can pay £2-3 for their lunch and, unsurprisingly, the market responds with less choice, lower quality and considerably less healthy food. In a square mile round Forest Gate station, there are around 30 fast food outlets. There are a few pockets of street food in Newham, but it tends to be chips and burgers, nestling in amongst the streets and streets of deep fried chicken shops.

It would be ironic for street food to end up as the preserve of gentrified bits of London and those that don’t need much change from a tenner for their lunch. Its roots, of course, are in communities where businesses with minimal start up and running costs thrive selling cheap, hot food to people on low incomes. Gourmet street food companies like Wild Rover, serving organic pigeon and bacon wrap, wild foraged berry porridge and sloe truffle torte, is not that.

However, there is a growing group of projects around the world that are using social enterprise and street food to get more choice and more fresh, healthy food into areas where it is really needed. Sometimes these are bringing street food into places where it doesn’t exist and elsewhere they’re introducing healthier and fresher options where street food culture is strong but standards are low. Both of these approaches are delivering many layers of local impact.

Two examples from very different parts of the world stand out.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, Mercy Corp have rolled out a successful project, KeBAL, that uses a central kitchen to prepare nutritious food, which is sold to vendors that serve it all over the city, with a particular emphasis on reaching children. Since this launched in 2009, it has grown to include two central kitchens, 10 franchise vendors and 20 vendors directly employed. Through this network, working in 4 main areas of the city, over 350,000 portions of food have been sold. There are many challenges, mainly in refining the business model, but with projects like this come many layers of social impact, from health to employment, and the potential is almost endless.

In Los Angeles, Roy Choi is pioneering street food with a social mission. After growing up in LA, helping out at his parents Korean restaurant and training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Roy returned to create the hugely successful gourmet Korean taco truck, Kogi, and set up two restaurants. His focus now is on taking fresh food into poor neighbourhoods where there is very little beyond standard fast food.

“If you’re from the hood, there aren’t many restaurants and you probably don’t have a car. Street food comes to you and it makes food accessible…going outside just the cool streets, to where you live, where you work, into the industrial zones, getting food to be more fluid with your life. This is the beginning of a revolution. Street food’s role is to make food accessible.” (Roy Choi on Radio 4.,You can listen to Roy Choi’s full Radio 4 interview here)

In the UK, forces are gathering for a similar revolution.

As well as more street food projects being set up with a dedicated social mission, such as Community Kitchen Project, there is a strong appetite (sorry) amongst commercial organisations and networks for applying what they do to different areas and audiences.

The StockMKT, for example, recently popped up in an old Shell garage off the Walworth Road, a world away from the Truman Brewery, and the Real Food Festival arrived in Stratford for the first anniversary of the London Olympic Games. Kitchenette, who work with food entrepreneurs to help them set up thriving food businesses through a 12 week incubator programme, and the Nationwide Caterers Association, one of the leading forces behind the growth of street food (their excellent paper, The Street Food Revolution, is worth a read), are both committed to pushing the benefits of their work into areas with a poor choice of mainly unhealthy food.

Vitally, local government is getting behind this progress. Access to pitches is one of the main barriers to the growth of street food and this social mission resonates with councils that want to see better options available in areas dominated by unhealthy take outs. Street food social enterprises can deliver many layers of local impact that are attractive to councils, from healthy food and employment to bustling high streets and less litter. Guarantees that these benefits are felt locally should unlock new locations for street food all over the country.

Our own modest experiment with Create and Stewed & Baked last autumn, Box Chicken, gave us a glimpse of how genuinely healthy, popular and financially sustainable street food can thrive somewhere like Forest Gate (you can read the full report here). This year, we’ll move from 1 location for 1 month to 6 locations for 6 months, working with a range of catering partners, trying different menus, marketing tools, business models and partnerships with councils, schools and suppliers. (If you’d like more information about the plans, please email

Street food is on the up in the UK, becoming more ubiquitous, creating new jobs, generating new profits and increasingly capturing the media’s attention. We and many others hope to contribute to the distribution of this growth, across different areas, appealing to different audiences and delivering all sorts of tangible social benefits in different communities.

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