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By Krisy Gashler
  • Department of Global Development
  • Food
  • Global Development
  • Health + Nutrition
A new project seeks to develop methodologies to assess food environments in two Kenyan cities, understand the role of informal vendors and offer guidance on how to measure the rapidly changing food environments.

Food system shocks – like natural disasters, political conflicts, or pandemics – raise the prices of staple foods, reduce access to good-quality diets and increase hunger. In low- and middle-income countries, the impacts of such shocks can be harder to measure, and respond to, because these countries rely more on informal food vendors, small, mobile retailers who are often unlicensed but provide a critical link in urban food environments.

A new project from Cornell’s Food Systems & Global Change, in collaboration with Purdue University and Kula Vyema Centre of Food Economics, seeks to develop a surveillance system to measure food environments in two mid-sized cities in south-central Kenya, and to develop a methodology for monitoring similar food environments around the world, with the goal of improving food security and health.

“These informal vendors play a critical role in the food system, both in providing fresh foods, and in offering employment options, primarily to women and young people. They are important actors who need to play a role in the food policies and governance systems that impact them,” said Ramya Ambikapathi, senior research associate in Food Systems & Global Change. “We are also assessing the relationship between food environment and diets in these contexts. There is a lot of variability in food environments, within day, between day and seasonally, due to the dynamics of formal and informal vendors. If you want to characterize how food environments shape diets, it's important to consider the variability in food environments.”

Ambikapathi is co-principal investigator of the project, along with Nilupa Gunaratna, associate professor of Public Health at Purdue University, and Simon Kimenju, executive director and lead researcher at Kula Vyema Centre of Food Economics, a research and development institute based in Kenya. The group recently received a £250,000 British pounds (approximately $326,000 USD) grant from Innovative Methods and Metrics for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions (IMMANA) to support their work.

To develop the methodology, the researchers will focus on two “secondary cities” – fast-growing urban areas in lower-income countries – one in Kirinyaga County and one in Machakos County. Both counties face growing challenges with diet-related diseases: almost two-thirds of women in Kirinyaga are overweight or obese and so are one-half of women in Machakos. Both counties are also home to a higher-than-average proportion of youth looking for entry into the economy; Africa is home to the largest youth demographic on earth, which poses both an opportunity and a challenge for the continent’s economic development. In Kenya, the median age is just 20 years old, with about 75% of the population being less than 35 years.

Rapid population growth in Kenya, largely driven by the growing youth population, has not only affected the food system through an increased demand for food, but also through changes in food consumption patterns, Kimenju said. Many Kenyan youth don’t have the resources or interest to engage in food production, but they are interested in downstream food system activities such as value addition, distribution, and retailing, much of which is done informally, he said.

“We hope this project will deepen our understanding of the youth-women-informality interaction in food systems,” Kimenju said. “We aim to highlight how policy and programming can contribute to the positive transformation of agri-food systems, which are a crucial cornerstone of the Kenyan economy, accounting for 34% of GDP and 65% of export-related earnings.”

For many people, informal food vending is an opportunity to generate income, but it’s not often a career goal, Gunaratna said.  For young people, it can be a first step in employment, and for women in particular, it may be one of only a few options for work, she said.

“Along with the growing calls for food systems transformation, there is increasing discussion of equity so that all people can achieve a healthy diet and good nutrition. However, we have not seen similar discussions about equity in the process of food system transformation,” Gunaratna said. “Actors such as food vendors shape the food system, but many are disempowered and disenfranchised. We cannot ensure that the process of delivering and realizing nutritious diets is fair and equitable unless we have data on these actors. The methodology we aim to develop can generate such data and give voice to these actors, while providing vital, dynamic information on changes to external food environments that will drive consumer outcomes.”


Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Food Systems & Global Change.

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