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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Modern-Day Peddlers

Thanks to Tracey Deutsch for posting an interesting response to the questions I posed in my "Big Organic" posting. In her comment, Tracey observes that peddlers played an important role in the early 20th century food system. She goes on to say that they bought food in larger wholesale markets and then transported it to neighborhoods, were they sold it to individuals in small quantities. Tracey concludes by observing that a resurgence of peddling — with some 21st century twists — would encourage some positive changes.

I've been thinking about this ever since I saw her comment. One observation I had is that the produce stands we see popping up along thoroughfares that lead to suburban neighborhoods are a modern form of peddling. They give us convenient access to farm-fresh produce, though the variety they offer is not as great as that offered by the early 20th century peddlers. A second observation is that the "business model" of modern-day peddlers is shaped by the automobile. The automobile has had profound effects on our society and our landscape. It played a key role in the emergence of the supermarket ... and it has shaped urban and suburban settlement patterns and land use. With the current energy crisis, we are paying the price of our dependence on the automobile. It will be interesting to see if we begin to break that dependence in the decades to come. If we do, it will have significant impacts on our communities and our food system.

Finally, as an economist, Tracey's comments on peddling made me wonder whether a person could make a decent living as a 21st century peddler. I won't bore you with my back-of-the-envelope calculations, but I think it would be difficult for a person to be able to earn a living wage from peddling after netting our the costs of wholesale food purchases, fuel, vehicle ownership, food handler licenses, etc. ... especially when competition from supermarkets on price, quality, and convenience limits the retail price a peddler can charge. In the end a sustainable food needs to provide a decent living for those who work in it. This is where creative thinking about the "21st century twists" is so important.

Thanks again, Tracey!