I got a graduate degree so I could set up a fruit and vegetable stand by the side of the road.
What About Food: June, 2015
By Dianne Shenk
“What does your mom do for a living?” The question was translated to me by my daughter, Larisa, when her friends asked her in Spanish. Larisa lives and works in Colombia, South America, and I was visiting her for a few short days this spring.
“I have a fruit and vegetable stand,” I replied, and watched their eyebrows go up in an obvious question“Tell them I got a graduate degree so I could set up a fruit and vegetable stand by the side of the road.” And when that got translated they laughed out loud, and I laughed along.
In Colombia, as in much of the world, micro-businesses are simply everywhere.
Vendor carts are parked on street corners and along streets, and hawkers weave through pedestrians and hop on and off the buses selling long plastic bags stuffed with stacks of cookies, pastries and rolls. Iced carts sell frozen treats and cold cases are filled with sodas, beer and 16 oz plastic bags of cold water (you nip a hole in the corner with your teeth and sip the water out). In open food markets along certain streets the piles of mangoes, papaya, oranges and pineapples spill from sacks and crates, while meat stalls sell freshly gutted chickens and chunks of beef or pork.
The Colombian specialty ‘food’ other than coffee (their coffee is truly amazing) is juice, and juice vendors can be found on nearly every street corner in every town or city. Juice is made from a variety of fresh whole fruit, often peel and all, washed and chunked into a blender where it is whirled to a puree and poured into a glass for customers to drink through a straw – delicious, and filling enough to be a quick meal on a blazing hot day. Breakfast one morning was a small roll and a large glass of orange and passion fruit juice.
When you’re surrounded by a frenzy of peddlers and bicycle-repairmen, mom-and-pop stores on every corner and motorcycle shops on every sidewalk, the idea of getting an education to open a small business seems ridiculous, and Larisa’s Colombian friends were clearly puzzled. I asked her to explain that in the US there are very few micro-businesses, and it’s difficult if not impossible for people with little income or a basic education to find a good job or make a viable living. What I’m trying to do with my fruit and vegetable business is to create a space where micro-businesses can get started for hundreds or maybe a thousand dollars, and grow over time into a viable income for the business owner. By starting my own small business, I’ve learned the challenges and barriers to getting up and running, and can better organize to support others who want to set up beside me. And by creating a ‘cluster’ of small food businesses, we’ll attract enough attention that we can be successful together.
Imagining a Colombian street with no vendors, no open store-fronts, no hawkers with bags of snacks and juicers with waiting blenders…..well, it just wouldn’t be Colombia, and it certainly wouldn’t be crowded with pedestrians weaving through the throng purchasing a quick bite and a drink between work and home or on their way out for the evening. My favorite memory is of an elderly gentleman resting in the shade on the seat of his parked bicycle, a roll in one hand and a knotted bag of juice with a straw poked into it dangling from the other one. He sipped and ate slowly, relaxing there as he watched the bustle go by on the sidewalk in front of him. City streets in much of the world are truly entertaining – people and businesses open and interacting in a constant confusion of color, noise, and commerce as they drive much of the world’s economy, and feed most if it’s people.