The mess that passes for street food in Jamaica

Pexels Oleksandr P 1031780
A street food display of shrimp (picture: courtesy of Oleksandr P)

A little over a week ago, a video surfaced on social media with images of what appeared to be a vendor at the ‘Crab-Circle” stalls at Heroes Park in Kingston, cleaning her rear-end after what was later reported as her defecating in the area where food was being prepared and sold. Further investigations have revealed that this wasn’t the first time this same individual had done this in the space that she occupies at the location. Naturally, several Jamaicans have come out against not only that behavior, but also at the lack of proper sanitary facilities at virtually all the street-food sites around the city of Kingston specifically, and around the island generally.

The Rise of the “Street-Food” Business

It is instructive that Jamaica’s “street food” businesses have become a ubiquitous component of the general street culture and have gained significant traction not only among the local population but also among visitors to our island, anxious to sample these street offerings. Today, “street food” despite the negative spotlight brought on by the “Crab Circle” incident has become an acceptable element of Jamaica’s culture, born like its much-pilloried relatives, reggae and dancehall music, from what is generally referred to as the “bowels of the Jamaican society”. In other words, the concept emanated from struggling Jamaicans who were simply “trying a thing” to feed their families. In other words, the proliferation of “street -food” locations across Jamaica is a symptom of an economy that has left too many people behind. This proliferation of street-food vendors is part of the throng of Jamaicans whose circumstances reflect the deepening disappearance of social and economic opportunities. In the 1960s and 1970s some turned to music. Many fell into the ranks of hustlers and itinerant vendors, and between the 1980s and the 1990s, windscreen wipers. Mind you, this isn’t a problem of today’s vintage but tracks back to how those in charge have marshaled the island’s development opportunities since the 1950s.

Squandered development chances and the rise of the lumpen

Jamaica, like most territories in the hemisphere, saw the same opportunities for growth and development immediately after the Second World War as the country lined up with its other island counterparts for a share in the march towards an industrialization-led development. Coupled with the burgeoning opportunities in Kingston, traditional agrarian labourers were being forced by repressive agricultural laws off crown lands and drifted in droves to the capital. A lack of planning that included the masses of our people combined with wanton waste of investment funds has always been the hallmark of the island’s leaders at all levels and over time the cup has now simply overflowed. The encouragement of the development of the “lumpenproletariat” at one time served partisan political interests but that, too, has lost its lustre as both the lumpenproletariats as well as the parliamentarians lost interest in each other. Today, it is every man for himself, and the country will take the hindmost.

Disinvestment in population development

Only the blind partisan will argue against the facts that aside from the Michael Manley administration of the 1970s, succeeding political administrations have never really made any meaningful investment in developing grass-roots Jamaicans. The result is the social chaos and economic decadence that no longer slinks in the shadows but, as times have become more desperate, the result of the decadence has begun to show itself. Today, there are many communities in Kingston & St. Andrew, as well as multiple other parishes, where there are Jamaicans who are without running water, not to mention proper toilet facilities. I saw this myself while driving through Central Kingston where scores of Jamaicans were taking a shower from a standpipe on a street corner. In the same areas of Central Kingston, scores of people live in tenement yards which have shared facilities, but no running water. These are some of your crab-circle vendors. Equally, these are your street-food vendors – little or no running water at home, operating a food stall on the street without toilet facilities and little or no running water.

Wake-up call

The Crab Circle incident was a wake-up call for the KSAC, The Ministry of Local Government, the Ministry of Health (specifically its Public Health division), and the Ministry of Culture. Most of all, it is a wake-up call for the Government of Jamaica to begin to make an investment in the development of the people of Jamaica. It is mind-boggling that all these agencies missed the fact that these very critical facilities were never in place at Heroes Park. Even more significant is the fact that Jamaicans who patronized the vendors also failed to take notice. In my opinion, this speaks to a much bigger problem – that those charged with providing oversight are themselves limited by their own (perhaps) lack of training and exposure.

Business development is impossible without people development

Most Jamaicans are sympathetic to the fact these people are merely trying to make a living. However, preparing and marketing food to the public requires skills training, health certification, as well as providing the necessary implements to guarantee public health and safety. As bad as it sounds, it is almost impossible to expect that an individual who does not possess these conveniences at home nor was afforded the requisite training, would be able to maintain the proper health requirements for their operations. In the circumstances, between the Crab-Circle stalls and the multitudes of other street-food vending locations, we have been dodging multiple bullets.

Requirements going forward

While Jamaicans will welcome the planned training programmes and the plans to provide food handler’s permits for these vendors, what is really needed is the creation and enforcement of more comprehensive programmes that will establish basic foundational standards. The country’s planners must demarcate areas for this type of commercial activity replete with the necessary sanitary facilities. It can no longer be that individuals are just allowed to do their own thing…anywhere.

Richard Hugh Blackford B.Sc., M.S (Ed).  Managing Director  YARDABRAAWD lNTERNATIONAL LLC.

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