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Informal food retailers, small food outlets and their implications for urban food systems

Mónica Mazariegos of the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) and collaborator on the SALURBAL project discusses the ways the informal food sector shapes urban food systems and food environments across Latin America. 

Posted on September 9, 2019
Informal food outlet in Latin America

By: Mónica Mazariegos, Sc.D., MPH, RDN
Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP)

What is the informal food sector?

The informal food sector includes sales of ready-to-eat products varying from traditional foods such as tortillas, tamales and atoles to more processed food options such as fried chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, and ice cream. Across Latin America, these options are frequently replacing traditional food. At the same time, small food outlets sell a variety of healthier foods including vegetables and fruits, legumes, meats and dairy. Both informal food retailers and small food outlets are often located strategically (near informal and unplanned settlements, workplaces, schools, streets, parks, bus stops and transport stations) and are therefore easily accessible by urban residents. Recently, food industries have also begun using door-to-door vendors to aggressively target low-income households directly, and offering ultra-processed foods and purchasing credit. 


How does the informal food sector shape food systems and food environments?

Informal food retailers and small food outlets respond to the reality of poor urban residents. Most poor consumers get paid daily and may lack refrigeration, clean water and food storage space, and often have only basic cooking and heating facilities. Therefore, daily purchase of food products or even meal-by-meal purchase of ready-to-eat food represents an accessible and affordable option in poor urban settings. Evidence from African cities shows that most low-income households purchase food daily from informal outlets due to the convenient location -and therefore savings in time and transport- and the access to small and affordable quantities of food provided by these outlets (“break-bulk”), which also often permit credit arrangements and operate for long hours. Most of the food purchased by poor urban families in informal markets consists of eggs, meat, fish, and milk. 


The same food-purchasing pattern appears to exist in Latin America, with low-income households purchasing food in small portions (cheese, cream, or butter, for example) or individual units (e.g. eggs, sausage, ham, bananas, tomatoes, tortillas). Purchasing food on a daily basis and in small quantities may be more expensive long-term, but it is more immediately affordable for low-income urban households. 

This food purchasing behavior and low-income levels may help explain why dietary patterns in some Latin American countries are characterized by a combination of traditional and ultra-processed foods. For example, in Mexico, the “Modern Mexican” dietary pattern is based on corn tortillas, hot peppers, sodas, and Mexican street food; in Guatemala, the “Western” dietary pattern is characterized by processed foods, ham, cheese, carrots, bread, boiled potatoes and milk. A high adherence to the “Western” dietary pattern has been positively associated with urbanity.

While informal food retailers usually occupy public spaces and may lack proper hygiene practices -therefore increasing health risk for consumers- and small food outlets may not offer the best quality of food products (calorie-dense, high sodium and sugary), we must consider that both of these elements shape food systems and food environments by enabling food access for low-income urban households. Informal food retailers and small food outlets should therefore be incorporated within urban plans, and policies should seek to incentive the sale of healthier ready-to-eat foods and nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables and good sources of animal protein. 

What else can be done?

Local authorities and international organizations are increasingly aware of the importance of regulating street foods and small food outlets. The FAO has recommended regulations to make street food safer, but more work is needed. 

A review of existing literature regarding informal food retailers raises numerous questions: What are people eating in Latin American cities and how is the urban food environment shaping their food choices and diets? How can informal food retailers contribute to creating healthy food environments? How can regulations such as labeling and control of street food quality be effectively implemented and enforced? 

We need to address these and other questions soon. Informal food retail has important implications for human health and the sustainability of urban and planetary systems, and evidence-driven policies and interventions present opportunities to promote and facilitate healthier diets in cities and support improved human health and well-being.

Two women selling food in Latin America

This post was written as a contribution to Cities, Sectors, and Health, run by SALURBAL. To contact the blog or learn more about the SALURBAL project, email 

Posted in localnews, Food Systems