Processed Food, Disability, and Autonomy by Jonathan Katz

There is some dissonance in being a food blogger and a disability access professional. This gap is not just because these are two very different things. Rather, there is a broad frustration. In my work, I am immersed in a world where access is everything. Things that give people more options to do things independently are good. We encourage the development of practices that reflect the way disabled people* approach the world. We aim to have the perspectives of those affected by something be the first that we take into account – after all, “nothing about us without us.” Most of all, we focus on not developing systems that mandate one way of doing things. Sometimes, the food world is the opposite. My fellow foodies judge those who use canned ingredients or “cook in the microwave.” “Processed” food is an ill-defined demon, as is “industrial food.” Those who cannot use boundless energy on intricate meals are not “dedicated enough.” Nor are those who cannot spend seemingly-boundless money on specific ingredients. Often, people with limited resources are simply ignored.

Jonathan Katz is a follower of In Defense of Processed Food and is the author of a delightful blog, Flavors of Diaspora. Here he provides a different perspective on processed food, one that I had not considered.  It is so easy for me to assume that everyone else in the world has the same access to things that I do, when that is frequently not the case. Jonathan is asking us to look at things from another viewpoint, but I will let him explain.

I have been trying to bridge my cognitive dissonance for a while. I do so partly as a food writer with a disability myself – I am on the autism spectrum. But I also do so as someone committed to finding the various ways food, disability, and society intersect. I have written about how disability affects cooking. When writing recipes, I incorporate my disabled friends’ feedback. I avoid dictums, and vary my suggestions. The result has been that I often feel distant from other food bloggers. Instead of advising people to only make homemade foods, I suggest that people keep ready-made foods on hand, just in case. Instead of judging those who cannot eat something or with limited food repertoires, I suggest that hosts accommodate their guests. I often say, “ready-made is fine,” “canned is perfectly good,” and “pre-chopped is excellent.” Some of this attitude is for reasons I share with other readers of this blog. I do not think processed food is bad, and I think we can advocate for high-quality, better, and affordable processed foods that meet a variety of dietary needs, practices, and preferences. But some of this is also because I am committed to access.

Disabled folks are often excluded from food culture, broadly. Some abled people never even realize that disabled people can and do cook. Then again, some disabled people – especially people with cognitive disabilities – are never given an opportunity to learn how to cook. Beyond knowledge, much of food culture is inaccessible. The focus on visual media excludes blind or low-vision people. Recipes are written and restaurants are designed for people without motor disabilities or chronic illnesses. Media around food is inaccessible – it is loaded with undescribed images, videos without captions, or so busy as to be difficult for many to follow. But most of all, the food itself is inaccessible. Some disabled people cannot safely chop fresh vegetables, carry a load of flour, or stand for long periods of time. Others do not have access to a kitchen that is fully accessible to them. And disabled people are disproportionately poor, for reasons ranging from low employment to rampant discrimination. Organic foods, specific ingredients, and specific equipment are often just too expensive.

Processed ingredients are often a lifesaver. For someone who cannot chop, frozen or canned vegetables allow that person to use vegetables. For people who cannot afford to go to a farmer’s market, or transport to get to a supermarket with “good produce,” canned and processed ingredients are affordable and last far longer. For someone with limited energy, an ingredient that is already processed is one that is usable. These ingredients – particularly vegetables and fruits – are especially important for people in inaccessible kitchens, who cannot afford to move, and also cannot safely do certain types of preparation in their kitchen. Things like frozen broccoli, canned peas, pre-chopped pineapple, and microwave rice might not have cachet, but for many people, they make a real difference.

This positive effect is not just with ingredients, but also with ready-made foods, like canned soup or microwave meals. Many people with cognitive disabilities never learn how to cook. The illustrated directions on ready-made foods are easily understood and allow these folks to feed themselves independently. Other people may not be able to regularly cook, because of pain, or regularly wash dishes, for a variety of reasons. Ready-made foods offer an option that is affordable and accessible. Many disabled people also live in temporary shelters or places where the kitchen is inaccessible. Ready-made foods are far easier to prepare in these circumstances than self-cooked food – even with processed ingredients.

rows of canned soup on shelves
Ready-made foods for sale. Photo by Jonathan Katz

For many disabled people, it is also easier to get processed ingredients or ready-made meals. Transport is often inaccessible or too expensive, so some people cannot get to supermarkets, farmer’s markets, or stores with a bounty of fresh ingredients. Not to mention that these stores and stalls are often physically inaccessible, or that staff mistreat disabled patrons. Besides, disabled people are disproportionately poor and more likely to live in food deserts. Processed ingredients or ready-made foods are often easier to find and much easier to afford. In North America, many disabled people shop at pharmacies or large chain stores that are more likely to be accessible. Processed ingredients and ready-made foods are easier to find and stock up on there. Not every disabled person cooks in this way or wishes to eat in this way. However, the options that exist for many mean that processed foods are the difference between living independently or not having autonomy, safety or the lack thereof, eating or not.

In some ways, this goes back to an original promise of processed food as an equalizer. As Rachel Laudan, Laura Shapiro, Josh Ozersky, and Richard Steckel have all written, the advent of many industrial foods in the 19th and 20th century made improved nutrition and a varied diet far more accessible than before for people who were not rich. Later, industrial foods were embraced by reformers as a way to allow those who cooked – almost always women – the freedom to do something other than food preparation all day, every day. This push for “unprocessed food” (an inaccurate term at best) and against industrial foods is also one against something that, despite its flaws, was a boon for huge numbers of people.

Much has been written about how food movement opposition to “processed food” is really just class performance – and I think we should talk about how ableist it is as well. As I have written above, processed ingredients and ready-made foods enable many disabled people to live independently, have more food options, and eat enough. (Not all though! Disabled people are as varied as anyone else, and that applies to food too.) What the food movement often advocates for is rolling back the things that make this autonomy, choice, and nourishment possible. Should such ideas take hold – for example, not allowing ready-made meals to be bought with food stamps or basic income – disabled people are more likely to suffer.

How do we combat this? Often the focus is on expanding access to fresh produce, but I ask you to think beyond that. How can we push manufacturers, governments, and providers to make and give better processed foods? By “better,” I do not just mean high quality ingredients. Of course that is part of the equation, but I also mean foods that reflect a range of tastes, budgets, abilities, and health needs. How can we include processed food in measuring equitable access to food and choice in food? And beyond this base, we should also advocate for more accessible kitchens, for tools like delivery services that bring food for people, and communal cooking. The fact that processed ingredients and ready-made meals are not always a choice is not an indictment of the people who eat them, but a system that is not invested in those people.

In the short term, we who write about food can also endeavor to not be so dismissive of processed ingredients and ready-made foods. After all, we all use flour and meat that has been processed for or by us before cooking. How about going a step further, and including canned vegetables in your recipes? Or giving suggestions on how to use frozen ingredients as a substitute or main part of a dish? We can also endeavor in our writing and interactions to not be so dismissive of the ready-made foods on which many people rely. If we are so attached to the maxim “tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” then why are we dismissing the foods that are symbolic of so many?

Do these things, become an advocate, and you could end up learning something about yourself. Maybe it is that you benefit from processed foods more than you realized or knew. Since entering the world of accessibility, I have realized that I, too, do much better with canned or frozen corn, rather than laboriously shaving cobs. You may also find that, perhaps, those foods are not as bad as you care to believe. Maybe you might actually like them! In access, we often talk about the fact that accessibility is good for everyone, and these benefits of processed ingredients and ready-made meals are a clear example of that.

*A note on terminology: There is a debate about the use of “person-first” language or “disabled” as an adjective – for example, a person with a disability or a disabled person. I strongly prefer the term “disabled person,” since I hold by the social model of disability. This idea is that disabled people are disabled by the societies around them. In addition, I find that person-first language still stigmatizes a disability as something separate from a person. But I find emphasizing someone’s humanity over their disability ignores the very obvious fact that disability is part of someone’s humanity and everyday experience.

Next week: Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat

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