I think the fried-dough cart was the last straw for me.
I have lived in two cities where food carts were a popular lunch option. But the scenarios in the cities were strikingly different. During the warmer months, Philadelphia also had several carts that sold overstuffed containers of fruit salads. An extra banana would be thrown in for good measure. The fruit carts were just as popular as the other lunch carts.
In stark contrast, New Haven has no such equivalent. Instead of fruits, I see cupcake trucks and fried-dough stands, steps away from the hospital. Seriously, New Haven?
Street vendors are an integral part of the urban food landscape. They provide quick meals and offer cuisines from around the world for a low price. New York City, for instance, even hosts an annual “Vendy Awards” to celebrate its extraordinarily diverse street vendor scene.
But street vending carts also pose a serious health problem. Meals are sold in large portions, and are very high in sugar, sodium and fat, especially saturated fat. One brave kebab cart in New York posted caloric information for 100 grams of its meat, showing a range of 320 to 710 calories. But most food carts serve at least twice that amount, which puts the caloric range at 640 to 1420 calories — for one meal alone, not including accompanying side dishes! The average person needs 2,000 calories a day, so this means that up to 70 percent of the day’s allotment could be found in that one meal. In other words, to stay healthy, better kiss dinner goodbye.
Food carts are not regulated like brick-and-mortar restaurants, although in New Haven several food carts are outposts of restaurants. As such, this presents a unique opportunity to tackle the healthiness of street food. In New York, restaurants were recently required to post caloric information. The same should be done in New Haven for restaurants and their carts.
Other policy recommendations include:
1) Lobbying for healthier lunch carts in New Haven.
2) Developing a scorecard that objectively measures whether street vendors use healthy ingredients and prepare foods in a healthy manner. Currently, health scores reflect hygiene, not nutritional value. This inadvertently leads people to think that the food must also be healthy.
In the meantime, there are personal steps that can be taken to enjoy street food in a healthful manner.
1) Don’t eat all the food at once. Divide items in half, eating half for lunch and saving the other half for dinner.
2) Opt for the appetizers instead. Even on their own, the portions are still large enough to work as a full meal.
3) Go for the fruit first. In the warmer months, some of the food carts sell watermelon from coolers for only $2. This and an appetizer are more than enough. However, it would be much better if carts sold other inexpensive fruit such as apples or bananas.
Better yet, pack your own lunch. It’s healthier, you control the portion size and it saves you money in the long run.
For all their tastiness, street foods are not nearly as healthy as they seem. But with proper regulation and careful personal measures, they don’t have to be seen as the silent enemy.
Linda Alila is a second-year student at the School of Public Health.