Mini Object Lesson: What Is a Snack?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Christopher Schaberg

Snacks get us through the day. They bridge the gap between meals, and help us tolerate excruciating think tanks or boring presentations. A snack can be as simple as an apple or banana, or as complicated as the array of salty flavors and accompanying micro-gustatory promises proffered at the vending machine.

Recently I learned about a company called “Love With Food,” which offers monthly boxed assortments of healthy snacks. For each box purchased, a portion of the proceeds are donated to food banks across the United States. It sounds innocuous enough, and even social-justice minded.

A blitzkrieg issued from the sample box I received in the mail: kale chips, rice crackers, fig bars, kosher cookies, gluten-free waffles, and even small green tea latte hard candies tucked in the corner (snacks, really?). Here was all of the globe tucked into a tidy bright red box: a primer in cosmopolitanism couched as a simple, healthy dietary decision and laced with with a touch of philanthropy to assuage the pangs of snack-guilt.

But as I sifted through the box’s bewildering contents, I noticed a message on the bottom of the box: “Still hungry? Shop more at” This is not really about snacking so much as it is about shopping.

Scrolling through the company website reveals it to be just that, a shop entirely like any other shopping site. Columns of options, some tantalizingly sold out. “Snack Smart. Do Good.”—so the company advocates all throughout. Yet one cannot help but hear a persistent murmur beneath the Platonic overtones, a quiet mantra emanating from the rows of packaged offerings: shop, shop, shop, shop.

We are all hungry these days. But what are we hungry for, more than anything? The strangely addictive snack of online shopping—and for goods shipped via boxes we dispose of, which in turn are full of packages we also throw away. In truth, we snack on consumption, which ultimately feeds the gaping trash gyres of the oceans. Love With Food’s website is littered with the most positive language of our time: love, simple, smart, healthy, good, discovery. Meanwhile, factories elsewhere hasten to churn out ever more small glittery packages to fill these red boxes, and later our trash cans and landfills. Like the return of the repressed, what is feared is pushed away—waste, want, work, greed—only to be revealed in even stronger terms.

Snacks are no mere stopover between real meals. Rather, snacks have become their own beast, something way beyond what we ever imagined could fit in such small bags, so easily disposed of. There’s no such thing as a free snack.

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