Mashed carrots, pureed pumpkin, roasted butternut squash. These are not the ingredients for a fabulous new fusion gourmet recipe that I'm about to share with you but a top-three list of my daughters' favorite foods when they were infants. I made the majority of their baby food, largely because it was remarkably easy; a stunning cost saver, and a huge reduction in our family's environmental footprint. Once a month I roasted or boiled carrots, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, squash and whatever else was in season. I threw the cooked veggies in my food processor and then froze them in ice cube trays and kept them in Ziploc baggies in the freezer. One or two cubes per meal, supplemented with cereal and mashed up fruits, kept my daughters happy, healthy, and tinted a little orange for most of their baby food days. Little did I know I was participating in a dangerous trend that is threatening the economic foundations of American society.
I enjoy cooking. I always have. When I was in fourth grade, my family was featured in the local paper for our seemingly remarkable cooking talents. One photo showcased me preparing my famous plum cake, which was an oh-so-70s bundt spice cake that contained two jars of plum baby food. By today's foodie culture standards, perhaps not so remarkable.
When I had kids it seemed silly for me to buy jars of baby food when it was so easy to prepare myself. Not to mention the fact that there was virtually no waste associated with my baby food. Even more importantly, I enjoyed preparing the foods for my girls. Rejecting the consumeristic cultural expectations associated with caring for babies and children gave me a sense of pride and satisfaction. I bring a healthy skepticism to the claim that many of the items that companies have devised to "make our lives easier" are worth the cost or the environmental consequences associated with their production and their disposal.
Apparently, I was part of a larger cultural trend as many more parents have begun to make their own baby food for a variety of reasons. In addition to saving money and decreasing our environmental impact, many parents also see making their own baby food as a way to introduce children to new and interesting flavors and foods as a way of helping to shape developing palates.
This is a trend that seems to be making baby food makers nervous. When asked about the declining sales of baby food, Beech-Nut Nutrition President, Jeff Boutelle, commented, "Underlying our problem, there was a silent, pernicious trend going on that no one was really paying much attention to." Pernicious, you say? Oh my goodness, what dangerous, harmful trend is it that is threatening our babies, I wondered. And then, I realized, his pernicious trend was the fact that more parents are making their own baby food. Mr. Boutelle was not really worried about the health and well being of our babies; much less what is best for the environment. His driving concerns are market share and profit margins.
If you accept the position that the only thing corporations should care about are profits, then a trend that decreases profits might be thought of as harmful. But the only perniciousness that I see is the inherent danger of a profit-only mentality that views a thoroughly wholesome, healthy, environmentally beneficial trend like parents making their own baby food as pernicious.
Profits are essential for business success and businesses and corporations are an important and essential aspect of human society. They provide jobs, goods, and services that help make life possible. But this incident highlights the moral bankruptcy of our current economic system. To the extent that capitalism teaches us to value profits over and above other social goods -- like paying a living wage to our workers, providing sick leave and vacation time, and the environmental consequences of our production and consumerism -- it undermines the strength of our society.
Even the "father" of capitalism, Adam Smith, did not envision a capitalist society; he envisioned a capitalist economy that functioned within a society guided by moral sentiments like sympathy and compassion. It is time to think more concretely and strategically about how to shape our economic and business models in ways that recognize the role that businesses and corporations ought to be playing in contributing to the common good.