By Sigrid Wertheim-Heck
The urban poor in Vietnam depend heavily on informal food systems. How will COVID-19 lockdown measures impact their food security and what will be the knock-on effects for daily life?
The COVID-19 pandemic is driving governments to enforce major restrictions on the lives of citizens. Vietnam, with nearly 100 million people, is no exception. The country was praised internationally for its rapid response in deploying strict quarantine measures during the initial outbreak of the virus.
It is now facing a second wave of transmissions and a national lockdown is in place until mid-April. People are required to stay at home unless buying food and medicine. Businesses are closed, public transport is suspended and public gatherings are prohibited.
In terms of food provision, only supermarkets and formally registered markets remain open for daily necessities.
Street vending is forbidden, leaving the once teeming streets of the capital Hanoi completely transformed. The hustle and bustle of the city’s complex and extensive informal vending systems that attract tens of millions of tourists from around the world every year – street markets, stalls selling traditional food and drinks, hawkers carrying goods on shoulder poles – have been swept away almost overnight.
For some years, with urbanisation and as incomes have grown, Vietnamese authorities have driven a national push for ‘supermarketisation’. Policies promote modern retail outlets including supermarkets and convenience stores while increasingly repressing informal vending.
The government’s goal is to improve food safety on the basis that informal vending is much harder to regulate; food-related problems stemming from goods sold here are difficult to track.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Hanoi’s informal food markets and vendors under even closer scrutiny as these spaces are deemed unhygienic and hot spots for virus contamination.
In Vietnam, and indeed other countries with complex, self-organised informal vending structures, this blanket shutdown will have huge ramifications for the urban population. The urban poor in particular rely heavily on these structures for their daily necessities, most importantly affordable foods.
Along with ‘supermarketisation’ comes ‘food gentrification’: supermarket corporations generally target high- or middle-income neighbourhoods, leaving behind low-income areas.
But even when supermarkets are physically accessible to the urban poor, our research found that modern ways of shopping that are deemed “progressive” or “convenient” – and where customers often buy larger quantities – does not suit their daily realities. Often depending on unstable incomes, urban poor groups need to budget daily for food and purchase in small quantities. Local markets are the convenient and affordable alternative.
Local markets provide more than just goods. Many Vietnamese families have shopped at their trusted local market for generations. These markets are vibrant community hubs. They form a crucial part of daily life for both consumers and vendors.
And on top of their social and cultural importance, informal markets support healthy, nutritious diets. Our research found that of all foods consumed by urban poor in Hanoi, 70% were purchased from traditional markets compared with only 19% from supermarkets and convenience stores.
And of all ultra-processed foods consumed, only 7% was bought at local markets and a staggering 84% at supermarkets and convenience stores.
These figures show that supermarkets and convenience stores contribute very little to the city’s total diet but provide a huge chunk of ultra-processed food.
The fresh foods sold in supermarkets and formal markets are often less affordable or inaccessible to urban poor groups. With only these outlets remaining open during the COVID-19 lockdown, the food and nutritional security of urban poor populations will be at risk.
Beyond the impacts of the COVID-19 lockdown, the shift to supermarkets is having longer-term ramifications on the diets of Hanoi’s urban poor.
By making more and more ultra-processed food – high in fat, high in salt, high in sugar and packed with other additives – available, more and more of this food is being consumed, a trend seen increasingly in urban poor kitchens.
And it is children who are driving this trend. Children love fatty, salty, sugary foods, and these are one of the few affordable treats that poorer parents can allow their children. Every parent knows that children pay more attention to food and are more willing to eat when they like what’s being served. So more and more processed meats, western fast-food style dishes, ready-to-eat snacks and sugar sweetened beverages are appearing on the household menu.
In the short term, authorities need to monitor the consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown, particularly on lower-income neighbourhoods that cannot easily access the formal wet markets or supermarkets that remain open.
Informal networks and community solidarity are crucial elements in any crisis. Policymakers might support existing social structures such as self-organised online buying groups to help ensure food and nutrition security among vulnerable low-income populations during this lockdown period.
In the longer run, policymakers might keep an eye on the links between the push for supermarkets and convenience stores and the increasingly unhealthy diets in low-income homes. But policymakers take note: this requires agility and sensitivity – what is preferred and socially acceptable changes over time.
The impact of COVID-19 on Vietnam's urban poor resonates with many other situations across the world. In Metro Manilla access to nutritious foods for the urban poor is seriously threatened, but also in countries like the United States, people that lose their jobs are being forced to use food banks, which are buckling under soaring demand.
These cases highlight the need to examine more closely the lived experiences of citizens during the pandemic, helping us unpick how it is shaping the daily lives and practices of ordinary citizens.
This blog draws on the paper “Food safety and nutrition for low-income urbanites: exploring a social justice dilemma in consumption policy”, by Sigrid Wertheim-Heck, Jessica Evelyn Raneri and Peter Oosterveer. The paper was published in in Vol 31, No 2 of Environment and Urbanization and is available open access.
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