A bunch of years ago, I used to read the blog of James Howard Kunstler, one of the wittiest and most acerbic critics of consumerism, the excesses of capitalism, and the misappropriation of resources for the buildout of a car-obsessed landscape. Kunstler regularly made me laugh when he would spotlight the Cheez Doodle as the perfect expression of American gluttony and wrongheadedness. I’ve been known to eat a doodle or two, but I could see his point and smile. I wasn’t smiling, however, when I stumbled upon Lil’ Crunchies—the Cheez Doodle made for babies.

Lil Crunchies

Look how happy that Gerber baby is! Every human should immediately get on the Lil’ Crunchies diet.

When I see a product like this, questions arise:

  • How smart is it to get 8-month-olds accustomed to eating non-nutritious snack foods packaged in throwaway containers?
  • How many times can you write “natural flavors” before people starting suspecting that you’re hiding something?
  • How much time should be spent trying to wipe neon-orange, cheese plasma off your baby’s fingers?
  • Didn’t South Park come up with a much better name for this product?
  • And most importantly… Just because a product can be sold for profit in this convenience-obsessed society, should it?

My friend Dani Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, has encyclopedic knowledge of sustainable food systems. She recently returned from the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where she was discussing the power of food (and especially changing the food system) as a solution to the climate crisis. You may be just as shocked as I am, but in her daily email dispatches from the conference, Dani didn’t mention Lil’ Crunchies (or any faux-cheese food substance)—not even once! I’m sure Gerber and its parent company Nestlé are disappointed, but they’re likely to get over it—after all, this inspired product has a 5-star rating from 12,281 enthusiastic raters on Amazon. Where might this be headed? I think artist Steve Cutts has a pretty good idea.

Back to what I described as the most important question: just because a product can be sold for profit, should it? My latest hobby has me pondering this question all the time. I am now a volunteer garbage collector in my neighborhood. It’s not as fun as mountain biking or hiking or, well, getting a colonoscopy, but the trash scene has deteriorated to such an extent where I live that I’ve decided a good use of my time is walking the streets with a garbage cart and a grabby-reachy-picker-upper-tool-thingy. I must confess that I actually like this activity. I know it won’t solve the underlying problem, but it feels worthwhile to take direct action with a direct result. Still, it can get pretty grim, especially in the context of widespread homelessness and an epidemic of addiction.

used syringes

Here’s my collection used syringes from an hour’s worth of trash picking (my sharps container ironically happens to be a discarded orange juice container).

When you spend hours each week grabbing trash from the streets and sidewalks, you start to notice a few patterns:

  • Addictive products in crummy packaging are more popular than the prom king and queen (I constantly see discarded alcohol bottles, coffee cups with those plastic sippy-cup lids, cigarette cartons and butts strewn everywhere, empty cans and bottles of sugar-soaked and caffeine-choked beverages, and candy wrappers).
  • The streets are awash in single-use doo-dads (my least favorite of these is the flosser pick—what’s wrong with standard dental floss? Do we really need a pointy, plastic, non-biodegradable, throwaway tool to remove the residue from our teeth every time we munch a few Cheez Doodles? Side question: how many of these flosser picks floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch does it take to clog the blow hole of a standard-sized dolphin?).
  • Dirty diapers and other plastic vessels that hold human excretions—oh never mind, I’ll spare you the gruesome details.

These patterns showcase a fatal economic flaw in the way markets operate. On the supply side, companies are beholden only to delivering what consumers will buy, and they logically pursue that goal by externalizing as many costs as possible. On the demand side, people are subject to all sorts of irrationalities and cognitive biases that lead them to buy (and give 5-star ratings to) products that deliver convenience and immediate satisfaction to the detriment of long-term health and true fulfillment.

Much like Dani’s calls for systemic changes to the way we grow, deliver, prepare, and eat food, there is a need to change the economic system. Some organizations are already making headway. For example B Lab is addressing the supply-side problem by running a certification process for B Corporations (short for Benefit Corporations). B Corporations are legally required to consider the impacts of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. If you’re a company and you can document that you do something useful, or at least not so harmful, for society and the environment, then you can operate as a B Corp. It’s pretty tough to imagine Phillip Morris or McDonald’s or even Gerber signing on to be a certified B Corp. My question is why do we allow non-B-Corporations in the first place? Wouldn’t we all be better off if every business enterprise had to consider consequences and act accordingly?

Such changes on the supply side would create positive changes on the demand side as well. If addictive, throwaway, bad-for-your-health, <insert your favorite synonym for “crappy”> products weren’t being offered in the first place because of universal certification processes required to be in business, then we wouldn’t be buying those products. It’s obvious to the point of absurdity, but no one will buy something that doesn’t exist!

Now, figuring out how to convince the power structure to do the right thing and acquiesce to systemic changes… we might need to dig a little deeper on the nature of power and how humanity wields it. In the meantime, I think I’ll go pop open a can of Lil’ Crunchies and ponder that one for a while. If it’s good for babies, it must be good for immature adults too, right? And don’t worry—I bought a gross of flosser picks so my teeth and all those dolphin blow holes can stay clean.