Children growing up in the crowded slums of Jakarta ease their hunger pangs by frequenting the food carts lining the streets and alleys of this mega-city. Snacks are so cheap that even poor mothers can afford to send their kids off to school with enough rupiah to buy a bag of chips or sweet treat. But these goodies come at a high price. A steady diet of chips and candy is resulting in a generation of Indonesian children with anemia, stunted growth, and rotten teeth.
To improve kids’ health, Mercy Corps has teamed up with local entrepreneurs to roll out a new fleet of food carts specially designed to appeal to young consumers. These kid-friendly carts with red-and-white canopies dispense affordable but nutritious fare, replacing empty calories with tasty porridges, stews, and finger foods.
It’s no accident that the carts use Madison Avenue-style gimmicks to change kids’ eating habits. Mercy Corps partnered with global advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi on cart design. Design specs require the two-wheeled pushcarts to be colorful and clean. Food trays are displayed low to the ground so that kids can see right in. Carts feature a quartet of superheroes—Strong Child, Smart Child, Lively Child, and Tall Child—who embody all the benefits of a healthy diet. Each cart even features a hand-washing station to encourage better sanitation.
“It’s all part of a public-awareness campaign about better nutrition,” explains Caitlin Carlson of Mercy Corps.
Although the carts look whimsical, there’s a solid research base behind their design. Mercy Corps researchers did behavioral monitoring to find out about families’ eating habits. They discovered that many urban families live in a fresh food desert, with poor access to markets. With the best intentions, parents often encourage their children to fill up on products like sweetened condensed milk. “If it says ‘milk,’ they assume it’s good,” Carlson says. “Most parents have limited education about health,” she adds. “They think, if my child’s full, that’s good.”
As a long-term strategy, the global aid organization is providing teachers with health information so that they will, in turn, educate parents about good nutrition.
The kid-friendly carts are also opening up new micro-business opportunities for street vendors. Mercy Corps handpicked its first group of vendors and provided them with training in everything from bookkeeping to branding. Mercy Corps also supplied the carts, which cost about $600 apiece. In return, vendors agreed to stick to the healthy-fare menu. “By their second month on the streets,” says Carlson, “they were turning a profit.” One sure sign that the carts are catching on? Young customers are starting to text-message their food orders.
Suzie Boss is a journalist from Portland, Ore., who writes about education and social change for Edutopia, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and other publications.
Photos: Mercy Corps Indonesia
I'm now 19 and experiencing being a dad. I must say although it feels good it's still hard. I knew it wouldn't be easy but to be honest, the hard part is having to balance time. My daughter is great and makes managing her never dreadful. -Teen dad
Great idea to redesign the carts, but what's in them? What makes up the healthy fare that kids are buying on the street?