Every now and then, I take a gander at the New York Times “Health” section, usually with the goal of riling myself up so that I can rant about something here at FWD. There are a lot of things to get riled up about. Today, for me, it’s the conflation of size and health, and the attitudes about food, cooking, and eating which I see in the “Health” section.
The section called “Recipes For Health” is headed:
The easiest and most pleasurable way to eat well is to cook. Recipes for Health offers recipes with an eye towards empowering you to cook healthy meals every day. Produce, seasonal and locally grown when possible, and a well-stocked pantry are the linchpins of a good diet, and accordingly, each week’s recipes will revolve around a particular type of produce or a pantry item. This is food that is vibrant and light, full of nutrients but by no means ascetic, fun to cook and a pleasure to eat.
I think that there are some fascinating assumptions embedded in here. Many of these assumptions reflect widely held social attitudes about food: There’s a “right” way to cook, there’s a “right” way to eat. You’re a good person if you subscribe to these ideals and follow them, and you’re a bad person if you don’t. In the “Health” section that’s taken one step further: You’re an unhealthy person if you don’t follow the dietary recommendations set out by someone else.
So, here’s the thing about cooking and disability. All of the things discussed as “linchpins of a good diet” get a lot more complicated when you have a disability. Setting aside the issue of allergies, let’s talk about the fact that some people with disabilities are extremely sensitive to flavors, textures, and smells. Some people with disabilities can’t do things like standing over a hot stove, lifting heavy pots, or going to a quaint local farmers’ market to pick up some of that fresh, local produce. Some people with disabilities actually have a really hard time coming up with things that they can eat, for a variety of reasons. And some people with disabilities face barriers to cooking.
What are some barriers to cooking? Well, what about the fact that many people with disabilities are of lower income and social status? Don’t you think that makes a difference when you’re considering what you can and cannot eat? It’s hard to get “seasonal and locally grown” produce when you live in a neighborhood which doesn’t really have stores with produce, when going to a different grocery store or a farmers’ market is not an option for you (too far away for you to have time, inaccessible, no safe transit). When CSAs won’t deliver to your neighborhood, how are you going to get produce?
What about the fact that food is expensive, and that some of the things touted in the “recipes for health” section are expensive or hard to obtain? A “well stocked pantry” really is not an option when you are living paycheque to paycheque (or benefits cheque to benefits cheque) and therefore cannot stock up on things. It’s easy to say “well, buy in bulk, it’s cheaper,” except that the initial outlay of cash for bulk foods might not be affordable for someone on a limited income; even though it’s more expensive to buy, say, boxed macaroni and cheese in the long term, it’s sold in a format which includes small, inexpensive packages which people can afford when they only have $15 to spend on groceries for the week.
And, of course, there’s the issue that getting into the kitchen isn’t as easy for some folks with disabilities. Some may live in settings where getting into the kitchen can’t happen because there is no kitchen, and people with a wide range of disabilities may have trouble doing things like standing in the kitchen for an hour to prepare a meal, controlling a knife to chop all that fresh produce, dealing with sensory input like smells while cooking, and so forth. I used to be one of those people who lectured about how “cooking is easy” and “it only takes a bit, it’s really no work at all” and how “you just have to commit” and then I woke up and smelled the beurre blanc.
“Cook healthy meals every day.” It’s an imperative. You must or you’re an unhealthy failure. And you must cook meals which are “vibrant and light.” Don’t cook what you want to eat, now. You need to cook food which is full of nutrients. (All food is full of nutrients.) In this case, “unhealthy” implies “fat,” and that’s an undertone in a lot of lecturing about what/how to eat, but there’s also some disability policing going on here too, some implications about how to live life “right.”
Food policing is an ongoing problem that I’ve been writing about for years, ever since I first started getting interested in the foodie movement and then just as quickly became totally disillusioned. When a prominent food blogger bragged about spending hundreds of dollars on food every week, I checked out of the movement. Because, you know, it’s not possible for me to spend $400 on food every week. I can’t actually be in the kitchen four hours a day. And the same holds true for many people, disabled or not, but being told what/how to eat carries extra baggage for disabled folks because we spend our entire lives being told what to do. “If only you did this, you wouldn’t be so disabled.”
Here’s what I think about food: “Eat what you love, love what you eat.” Our Ouyang Dan said that, and those are some words to live by. You don’t need the New York Times to tell you what to eat; you already know what to eat. The Times should stick to a recipe section, rather than preaching about what people need to/should eat.