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The Rumble in the Jungle # 2

Street Food - not Street Fight

The catchy title originates from the popular version of the historic fight between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. The odd, rhyming headline played on hints to several different meanings, with the street fight as the most obvious interpretation for the match. One thing was for sure; something big and noisy was about to happen in Central Africa. I think that a reference back to this event might pretty much wrap up how I see today’s struggle for sustainability and organic food cultur around the globe.Because another kind of rumble is definitely on its way, both from the jungle and into the urban jungle; it is probably already creating noise in your neighborhood!

A heavy thunder-like storm, figuratively speaking, has been approaching the area populated by consumers of sustainable and organic products for more than a decade now. The distant lightning, which appearing from the sale of homegrown (organic) vegetables at Saturday morning markets decades ago, have now in many places turned into a shimmering sunny retail industry. The number of organic products sold in my home country of Denmark is about to surpass the 10% in overall retail share. So, what was once merely seen as a nice well-meant contribution to the Saturday or Sunday trip to the city center, has for many families in Europe and the US become a part of the wish list for their weekly or daily shopping.

Float like a butterfly - sting like a bee

The promising numbers from the retail industry has not knocked out the market culture, as perhaps many might have predicted. No, on the contrary. You might say the old fruit sellers and marketers have been “on the ropes”, but the market culture has survived any attempt of being counted out. Instead, slowly, but with swift movements, a new trend among street food markets has found its feet, partly by exploiting abandoned buildings or areas, often in earlier dodgy town zones. In USA, a city like Detroit has fought during recent years to rebuild its ragged reputation via a focus on food, and so has an old steel city like Pittsburg. In Miami, where I once lived, the huge area of warehouses north of the down town area is being refurbished, and a whole neighborhood of cool, casual food culture has become what now is the Wynwood area. And it doesn't stop here. Wherever I went during my annual visit to Denmark this summer, my family and I were met with street food markets, organic home-made burger bars, odd, spicy, interesting food- or beverage shops, loads of coffee bars, etc. Even the 7-eleven kiosks offered gourmet options. And it was not only in the trendy Copenhagen region we faced these changes; in Aarhus, Elsinore (the setting of Hamlet), yes - even in my hometown of Randers with 60,000 inhabitants we experienced this phenomenon. And believe it or not: while writing this blog, I accidentally stumbled across a street food festival in my hometown of Santa Cruz de la Sierra the other night. Extremely good wok food and pizzas, not to mention a pretty high level of local artisanal beers. Furthermore, the event was very well organized and had several original booths designed of old Volkswagen vehicles.

The development of street food and the many related food entrepreneurial initiatives have co-evolved with such a pace and impact, that I haven’t been able to resist using the perhaps most famous metaphor about Mohammad Ali, “floating like butterflies and stinging like bees” to describe these food upcoming environments.

Why is it important?

The food markets have brought a lot of positive “vibes”, and it is sincerely a relief to watch how the concept blossoms and spreads to other regions. It is especially nice to see how people from different layers of society gather in great gastronomic harmony to serve a public, who has indeed welcomed the new kitchens of the streets. And contrary to the disuniting behavior and rhetoric coming from political or social media related groups or parties, also taking place and spreading to the streets around the globe, I see a lot of love and warmth, and I sense an atmosphere filled with some nice aromas surrounding the various places to eat. So, the street food concept is more than just an inspiring, isolated idea of preparing exciting food in different settings. It has also become a voice and a way of expressing great perspectives for other sustainable solutions.

Equivalent to the warm, embracing thoughts and action behind street food, we must not forget the tragic scenes of street fights, originating from the desolation, hatred and despairing attitude - that many of our fellow citizen have become victims of in the recent years. I think the people involved in the street food wave, but also the universe of organic and natural products in general, should consider their success and power to include more people from lower and less privileged areas in society.

Another reason why Street Food could or should play a significant role, is an actual structural challenge facing our city centers. In times where many cities are struggling to rent out their stores or shops, every single new original entrepreneur is more than welcome. The death of retail has become a familiar and sad urban characteristic during the recent years, especially caused by the huge 2008 economic crisis. Albeit recovery has been announced and followed by promising numbers regarding e.g. employment, you still can’t ignore the many empty shop windows, from the once busy shopping areas of South Beach in Miami to the central Copenhagen, or in whichever other major city I have visited the last couple of years. And if you add the forecast for employment and the increasing influence of technological development, e.g. Artificial Intelligence, it is time to call for even further action and ideas to steer clear of other major social hurricanes.

Whereas the traditional old markets mainly sold the traditional, local fruit and vegetables, the new markets also sell untraditional articles, including organic products and care about quality. They seem to be inspired by global trends and ideas. I, therefore, see a promising, clear prognosis with many sunny days ahead as how to develop the culture of natural food.

So, next time you hear a rumbling sound, this time in your belly, don ‘t hesitate to support your local street food market, or whatever new concept that has occurred since last time you went around town. They - and you might approve of it in the long run.

The pictures are from the Santa Cruz Street Food Festival , October 2017

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