It’s a busy Friday for Urmila, who is having to juggle her time managing the business and attending a voluntary training programme. While she attended the training, her husband chose to stay back at the snacks stall they run together. Their street food cart outside Chandigarh’s Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, (often referred to as PGI) generally sees good business during the weekdays and the hardworking couple from Bihar are now hoping to scale it up further.

For dozens of street food vendors like Urmila, it was a similar situation. Some of them had taken time off from their similar businesses to join the training programme that could help them upscale their businesses.

There were people who made tea, samosas, juices, chaat (savoury Indian snack), popcorn and ran several other similar food businesses to make a living for their families. Their businesses may have been vastly different, but they were united with one deep desire, perhaps unstated – they all wanted their business to grow.

“I hope to learn from the training and ensure cleanliness and hygiene when we work. We have been told that it will help in growing our business,” Urmila said after the training.

This was just one of the training programmes that street food vendors near PGI were attending. The training takes place in a bus specially designed as a classroom that invites different experts who explain the need for vendors to upgrade their skills and practices. Over several weeks now, similar programmes have been held in different cities across Punjab. Thousands of street food vendors have attended these, some of them on more than one occasion, and are learning ways to be more attractive to the customer.

The training programme conducted inside the Coca-Cola bus teaches the food vendors to implement better hygiene and safety standards. In and around PGI, Chandigarh a programme like this is of great value to consumers as well as those running foods business. There is a steady stream of people who visit the state’s biggest healthcare facility from several nearby towns and cities. If a change can be brought about there, its impact could be felt at other places too.

Supporting the army officer’s mission

Street food vendors in Chandigarh may not have heard the name of an Indian Army officer, Lt. Col. Kumar Pushkar. After all, they have hardly ever served tea or samosas to a serving Lieutenant Colonel, far less interacted with him on multiple occasions. After completing his medical studies from Pune’s Armed Forces Medical College, Lt. Col. Pushkar was busy making a career, serving the needs of India’s defence forces.

Have been a public health specialist in the Indian Army, he has been part of various national health programmes implemented by the army over several years.

On a three-year leave to complete his doctoral degree, Lt. Col. Pushkar has been working with street food vendors to help raise the standards for food safety and hygiene. 

The cart, to begin with, is very important. The design of the carts is assessed as per Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) guidelines. The importance of cleanliness around the food carts is also stressed during every training session.

“Gloves, aprons and caps should be worn by all roadside food vendors. The challenge is to help them graduate from the informal economy to the formal one,” Lt. Col. Pushkar says, explaining the kind of changes that could be brought about.

Lt. Col. Pushkar and his mentors, Dr. Sonu Goyal and Dr. Amarjeet Singh, have been working with the municipal officials and companies like Coca-Cola to help design and source the ideal carts for the street food vendors and participating in the training sessions.

The biggest challenge for everyone is measuring the impact of the training a few months after. “With the basic cleanliness practices, the business for select street food vendors has gone up 3 times,” Lt. Col. Pushkar says.

For clean, hygienic food

Implementing these practices is a win-win situation for the food retailer and their consumers. Since the street food vendors’ pricing cannot be matched by organised food chains, several customers flock to them. Upgrading the quality in terms of hygiene and cleanliness could widen the appeal among customers.

Over the last six weeks, the Coca-Cola bus has been going around different cities in Punjab for the second consecutive year. Working as a classroom for street food vendors, the programme provides soft skills training to these vendors. Among several key inputs are cleanliness, hygiene and the use of good quality raw materials.

Last year, 1143 people were trained under the programme in Punjab. During 2018, 5986 street food vendors have already been trained in the state. Across India, over 9,500 street food vendors have been trained till date. The ‘Parivartan’ bus is parked at different locations and the food vendors from the neighbouring areas are encouraged to join the training programme.

At one of the recent trainings in Chandigarh, vendors were tested when they had to do a practical demonstration of what they learnt in class.

This is the second year when Coca-Cola India is carrying out the programme. The company has committed to training small food vendors across the country through delivery of the training module to small food vendors/ cart operators. Thousands of street food vendors are to be trained under the programme all over India over the next three years.