For anyone who’s even slightly health conscious, it’s easy to scoff at the junk food that fills a modern American supermarket, accumulating most thickly around the checkout counters. The image here is a quick snapshot I took at my local Shaw’s earlier today. It’s easy to hate the “evil” corporations that feed us this stuff, and it’s easy to feel sorry for, but also a bit disapproving of the people who readily consume it. Judgment is easy. But if we put judgment aside, there’s more to see here.

When I passed this kiosk today, looking at all those nicely wrapped goodies, my first thought was that someone had to design all that packaging. So I thought of my brother. My brother loved art growing up, so he went to school for graphic design, and worked in the field for many years, and he was really good at it; but later on, he struggled to find work. Opportunities came up and fell through. It seemed like no one was hiring. And even if they were hiring, they didn’t call back. If my brother’s dream had come true – and if our family’s dream for him had come true – if he’d gotten a really great job in his field, maybe he’d be working for a food company designing packaging.

So when I look at the display, I think – that’s the work of the people who got the job that my brother would have loved to have. They were the lucky ones. They went to school for packaging design, interviewed, had some success, got hired, showed up to work at 9 every morning, got assigned a project, and met the deadline, and maybe they did this while raising kids or taking care of elderly parents or dealing with personal health issues – they still prevailed and designed these packages including the logos and all the other text. They got the dimensions right, the colors, the spacing, everything. Revision one. Revision two… Revision twenty. FINAL.

And someone had to formulate and manufacture the plastic that these products are wrapped in, and come up with a process for sealing the packages. First they had to get the job, and they did.

There were business analysts and product managers who did the research to figure out what would sell, and they got it right. Maybe they got bonuses for their accurate projections.

And there were marketing folks who made ads for this stuff, using their knowledge of psychology and communication to make people want it.

Someone said let’s call it “Foofy Puffs” and someone said “I think I like it!” and someone else said “No, it’s terrible!” and they had to work it out. Over many meetings. Maybe they stayed late at the office for this.

And there were food scientists and chemists who came up with the recipes and the right preservatives and colorings to mix in. These might have been folks who enjoyed cooking at an early age, but they liked science too, and then they saw a career opportunity in food science – perfect combination. Lucky them, they found a way to put their interests together and make a living at it. Dream job.

Someone had to source the ingredients, which meant establishing relationships with suppliers, negotiating prices, drafting contracts, reviewing contracts, signing contracts, managing delivery schedules, dealing with unexpected supply shortages, finding alternatives. Someone was really good at logistics and making puzzle pieces fit together and they got a job doing just that.

And someone had to manage the process of testing the food for nutritional content so the specs could be printed on the packaging.

And someone had to do quality assurance, making sure things were coming out right. Someone was really good anticipating problems and identifying defects and they found a way to put that skill to use.

And someone had to design and build out the industrial kitchens where the products are prepared. And people worked in those kitchens and someone managed them and someone managed that person, keeping their morale up, listening to frustrations, providing constructive feedback, establishing goals and a path for professional advancement. 

And someone had to manage the logistics of shipping the product from the kitchen to the warehouse and from there to the supermarket.

And when boxes of product arrived at the supermarket someone had to unload them and put them in the right place and unpack them and put the products up on the shelf. And someone had to watch the shelf and decide when to restock.

I’ve worked in business. I’ve helped businesses. I once tried to launch a startup of my own. I know how when you bring a large group of people together to do something complex – no matter what that thing is – it’s really a testament to teamwork and persistence and ingenuity and resilience when you meet your deadline, when you deliver, when you ship product. Because there are so many things standing in your way.

All this junk food is product that shipped. So in a way, it’s a testament to people being good at their jobs. Which means they showed up every day, harnessed their education, creativity, and personal strengths to overcome countless hurdles that stood in the way of shipping. Maybe they failed at first and then they did the work to get better and succeed the next time.

These were the “responsible” people, the “hard workers,” the folks who went to school and graduated and got “good” jobs and earned paychecks to support their families, to go on vacation once in a while, and save some money for the future. These were the folks who were lucky enough to have those opportunities. Opportunities that my brother struggled to find. And in exchange for that paycheck that they kept receiving, they kept doing everything that it took to ship. And they shipped. And they shipped again.

But look what they shipped. Look at what they shipped through the application of all that effort, skill, perseverance, and coordination. All those early mornings rushing to work, all those evenings commuting home in traffic.

They shipped food that’s bad for us.

And they put it in plastic wrappers that are bad for our environment, our home, our earth.

They harnessed their personal abilities and strengths to succeed in delivering something bad.

You could say they were just doing their jobs and just giving the market what it wanted, and no one has to buy it who doesn’t want it, but in the end they made something that doesn’t help anyone. They made something that doesn’t make the world a better place.

But the challenges facing our world are deep enough that if we’re going to meet them, we need teams of people working day and night with all their strength to ship solutions, as effectively as we’re shipping problems today. 

We’re all part of the society that enables the shipping of junk food – even if we don’t like it and don’t eat it. We pay the taxes that fund the schools and maintain the roads that allow people to grow up and commute to their adult jobs – if they’re lucky to find those jobs – so they can ship junk food. And we celebrate a person’s right to ship whatever they want, be it junk food or health food, guns or bandaids, bibles or blank notebooks – anything under the sun.

Without sacrificing that freedom, without bringing that freedom into question, we need a way to think collectively about what we’re shipping, because we can’t put so much effort into shipping problems, we can’t keep shipping problems forever, and at the same time expect our situation to improve. At some point we – the collective we – need to accept that our situation is a direct consequence of what we ship. The problems we face are the ones we shipped! The good news is that if we can ship something, we can ship something better. ■

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