The Inaccessibility of Food Accessibility

How do we make the food justice movement more accessible to disabled and chronically-ill folks?

 

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Image description: a photo of a garden with multiple raised beds and wheelchair-accessible features, including a paved path and a table-height bed. Photo credit: “Newport Demonstration Garden at Oregon Coast Community College” by photographer Gail Langellottolicensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Note: this article was previously published in an issue of The Peak Magazine. In this time of physical distancing, we recognize that not all of its suggestions are currently possible; however, they are good to think about as we plan future food justice initiatives, and they may still be relevant now for those providing essential food services (such as through mutual aid groups offering collective care to vulnerable populations).

I’ve wanted to get into foraging for a while. It’s a wonderful way to connect with nature, help eliminate edible invasive species, and, of course, provide me with free food to eat. This is very pertinent, as I am disabled and without much of an income. While I’ve known about a couple of plants I can forage, I need more hands-on learning to be able to really make foraging a consistent part of my diet. There is a monthly foraging meet-up in Toronto I’ve wanted to check out for almost a year; I haven’t been able to attend because it takes place in the evening, when I am at my lowest energy. Plus, my social anxiety often prevents me from attending group events. I finally made it out to the last meet-up, however, which I was very excited about. We learned about edible roots like burdock, dandelion and garlic mustard. I quickly realized how much physical effort was involved, as I spent about 15 minutes of exhausting, vigorous digging to get a little piece of burdock. It was a tasty treat to eat, but I knew I would not have the physical energy to visit the forest and dig up these roots – or at least not regularly enough to actually make a dent in my food costs.

The food justice movement is supposedly centred on accessibility – specifically food accessibility – with much dialogue around ways for individuals and communities to have increased access to food. While the long-term goal is to create a more equitable and sustainable food system, the short-term goals often focus on ways individuals and communities can more immediately access food – financially, geographically, culturally, etc.

Various approaches and strategies are touted as creating radical change and food access. Activities such as gardening, foraging, dumpster diving, bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, serving free food, cooking from scratch, preserving and bulk buying are highly praised within my activist circles. While I support these approaches, and participate in many myself, I would not put them in the category of “radical change”. There are several reasons for this, but I would like to focus on one in particular: inaccessibility. These quick-fix approaches require a multitude of things that many folks do not have: certain abilities, skills, time, energy, flexibility, space, upfront money, safety, privilege.

For example, I used to dumpster dive and barter frequently before I became disabled. Now these activities are too time and energy-intensive for me to do regularly. Other folks may not have the time or energy because of life circumstances, such as working two full-time jobs, single parenting, or being sick. Cooking, preserving and bulk buying require access to a kitchen and storage space, which many do not have. Gardening and foraging usually involve bending and physical labour, and gardens and forests are often not wheelchair-accessible. Many individuals (myself included) cannot usually accept free prepared food because of dietary restrictions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote and participate in these activities. But we need to stop presenting them as something everyone can do. We are also delusional if we think we are fundamentally changing the food system through these particular efforts.

Thus, I propose three ways to reframe the movement. First, we need to focus more heavily on the mid and long-term goals of shifting structures, such as policy change, poverty reduction, improving food sourcing, eliminating food deserts and building local agriculture. Second, we can simultaneously be implementing short-term initiatives, but we should creatively find ways to make them more accessible. Third, we must bring more voices into the food justice movement in order to be more inclusive and properly address inaccessibility.

These three propositions are not easy tasks, so let’s start by breaking down how to make initiatives more accessible. Here are a few specific ideas of how you can make changes in your organizing, to increase accessibility:

  • In community gardens, create wheelchair-accessible pathways and include raised beds so those needing to sit can participate.
  • When serving prepared food, cater to dietary restrictions (i.e. vegan, Halal, gluten-free, nut-free, alcohol-free, etc.) and clearly label ingredients. Consider providing options, such as serving several dishes with differing ingredients or using a buffet/build-your-own meal set-up so individuals can choose their own ingredients.
  • To increase access to cooking, preserving and bulk buying, provide kitchen and storage space. Also consider doing these activities collectively in order to lessen the upfront financial cost.
  • When accepting bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, offer sliding scale options. For example, require fewer (or zero) hours of work from someone with limited ability/capacity/time.
  • Share the bounty from your various endeavours (e.g. gardening, foraging, cooking, preserving) with those who cannot access these activities.
  • Before and during the planning of events and projects, seek out input from a variety of folks in your community to find out what initiatives are desired and how best to implement them in an accessible way. If you don’t have marginalized folks involved in your planning, you need to figure out why you’re not accessible to them.
  • Work creatively to come up with alternative ways of doing something. Inaccessibility and ableism are, in part, the result of a lack of thinking beyond the status quo, so get creative!

Accessibility means different things in different contexts. I’ve touched on just a few aspects of what it can look like in the food justice movement. Remember, though, that accessibility is an ongoing process, not a rigid  set of laws. If you view these suggestions as annoying rules to follow, you are missing the point. The purpose should be to focus on people, not checklists. I admit it can be overwhelming to be faced with requests and recommendations, and I often feel incapable of accommodating everyone. Keep in mind, however, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Attempting some (or even one) of these efforts is better than nothing. Of course, we need to strive to do more, be self-critical, and listen to feedback. That being said, don’t let the fear of imperfection prevent you from trying. It’s impossible to achieve 100% accessibility, especially when there are conflicting needs. Yet we can continually work at it, doing our best to structurally make space for this evolving process.

How the Food Justice Movement Can Be More Body-Positive

Image description: photo of several types of fruit of varying shapes and sizes, lined up in a row from biggest to smallest; the fruit is sitting on an outdoor picnic table ledge, with a vegetable garden in the background. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016

Note: a version of this piece was originally published as a guest blog post for ‘Hoffmann Hayes’ – a food and gardening collaboration between Daniel Hoffmann (The Cutting Veg) and Jane Hayes (Garden Jane).

Food justice advocates and body positivity proponents seem to be in different worlds. With the former focussing on creating a more equitable and sustainable food system, and the latter working to promote positive body image and challenge beauty standards, there may not appear to be a reason for overlap. But food and bodies are interconnected at a very core level.

Present-day Western body image issues often revolve around the consumption of food, which our agriculture system impacts. Yet when the food justice movement addresses many important issues affected by our broken food system, body positivity is usually excluded. Thus, I would like to present two ways that food justice initiatives can become more body-positive.

(Note: I use the term “fat” in this piece as a neutral descriptor – like tall or short; the term has been reclaimed by many and is preferred over the more negative terms “obese” and “overweight”.)

1. We can talk about food issues without fat-shaming.

Despite good intentions, there is a lot of fat-shaming that happens within food justice work: from using photos of (often headless) fat individuals eating “junk food” in marketing materials, to touting the “obesity epidemic” as the reason that we need food justice, to upholding “sexy thinness” to sell the local food diet.

I urge you to think about how this messaging affects fat individuals. For example, when a school displays a poster about healthy eating that warns against “obesity”, every fat student at that school is being told that their body is “bad” and that they aren’t supposed to look the way they do. This shaming and stigma can have long-term psychological and physical effects.

But good news: we can talk about nutrition and all the other important food issues WITHOUT shaming individuals for their weight. Even if your focus is health, remember that you can’t know if someone is healthy by looking at them. And even if you could, no individual should be judged, oppressed or devalued based on their weight or health status.

In addition, when there is a focus on the “obesity epidemic” within the food justice community, fat individuals are left feeling as if they are not allowed in. Let’s change that by promoting size diversity and using more inclusive, weight-neutral messaging.

For more info about how to talk about food and health without fat shaming, I encourage you to learn about Health At Every Size® (HAES®) – which is a paradigm focused on ending size discrimination and scientifically challenging other weight-centred approaches.

2. We can be mindful of language that triggers disordered eating.

Talking about food legalistically can trigger disordered eating. When we refer to food as inherently “good” or “bad”, or use terms like “clean eating”, we can unintentionally contribute to the negative diet culture. The ideology for determining which foods are “moral” or not can vary: whole foods vs. processed, organic vs. conventional, local vs. imported, vegan vs. factory-farmed…and on and on.

While it is important to discuss and challenge these food system issues, describing an individual food item as falling firmly into the “good” or “bad” category is a legalistic way of shaming individuals for what they eat.

Not everyone has a choice about the food they eat. But even when individuals do have access to “healthy” food, dietary legalism can contribute to disordered eating habits, such as striving to be “perfect”. Strict food rules and diet hypervigilance can contribute to several types of eating disorders, including “orthorexia” – which is a lesser-known eating disorder characterized as an obsession with healthy eating.

Food labelling is important for industry transparency and to accommodate dietary restrictions; but let’s be mindful of our intentions and effects as we label and promote certain foods. Does a child really need to know how many calories or grams of fat are in their school lunch? Let’s keep that conversation away from the actual meal, and encourage everyone to focus on eating with pleasure and mindfulness.

By bringing size diversity and disordered eating into the food justice discussion, we can work towards creating a more inclusive, body-positive food movement. Of course, the body image activists can also learn a lot from the food justice folks. And in order to be truly inclusive and intersectional, both movements should strive to collaborate with other social justice communities, as well. A broader definition of “body diversity” includes people of colour, disabled folks, and other marginalized individuals. So let’s work together and focus on making more intersectional connections within, between and beyond these movements!

To learn more about size diversity and eating disorders, check out the following websites:

The Feast

A reflection on nature and community as nourishment

Rainbow Lake beach
Image description: photo of Rainbow Lake, with canoes and a boat house on the beach – taken at Camp Dawn. Photo by Julie Nowak, 2016

Note: This piece was originally presented in September 2016 at the closing ceremony of Camp Dawn, an annual 4-day camping retreat for brain injury survivors in Ontario, Canada. While the reflection is, in part, about the Camp Dawn experience, I think the sentiments can be applied to the general experience of navigating the world when disabled and the need for nourishment.

Content warning: mentions of ableism, healthism and hardship after brain injury; the use of starvation as a metaphor

I breathe in the fresh air as I sit beside the small lake. The water and surrounding forest fill my senses with serenity as I bask in the sun and feel the September breeze on my skin. I am by myself in this moment, feeling the calm of solitude in nature. Yet I do not feel alone, as behind me lies a camp full of people – teeming with excitement and friendliness as they participate in various camp activities.

This – this is what I need right now. To be honest, this is what I need a lot of the time, though I don’t always get it. In my daily life in the city, I try to spend time in parks and go for walks in the forest when I can; but this “nature therapy”, as I call it, is not enough. I need nature immersion, not just nature breaks, in order for my being to actually be rejuvenated and strengthened. I have a hunger for nature that can only really be satisfied by escaping the city and escaping all of the chaos of my life that is there. I believe that all humans have this hunger, but some may crave more nourishment than others. For many of us, the realities we face – by simply being ourselves – are so harsh and hostile that we are depleted of our reserves. We are starving. Starving not only for nature and for a break, but also for community and solidarity. Continue reading The Feast

Is Veganism an Eating Disorder?

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Photo description: the word “VEGAN” spelled out on the ground using various flowers. Photo credit: “Vegan” by Helen Alfvegren – licensed under CC BY 2.0

Note: a version of this piece was originally published in “Complicating Veganism” (2015) – a compilation zine edited by Nicole Davis and Clementine Morrigan

Content warning: mentions of disordered eating and consumption of animal products

As a vegan who is critical of the vegan movement, I regularly ask and welcome questions that interrogate veganism and challenge its lack of intersectionality or accessibility. Yet when I’m asked the question “Is veganism an eating disorder?”, my initial reaction is to want to get defensive and explain how this assumption is anti-vegan propaganda. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know from personal experience that veganism can sometimes be part of an eating disorder – and I think it’s important for vegans to talk about this.

(Side note: I acknowledge that the term “eating disorder” pathologizes bodies in a way that puts them into a defined box. I use it in order to facilitate contextual dialogue and because it has helped me voice my experiences, but I am open to other suggestions and support those who do not use the term.)

Anything that involves food restriction has the potential to contribute to an existing eating disorder – whether it is veganism, religious dietary restrictions, or food sensitivities. Vegans, along with those who eat an all organic or Paleo diet, are sometimes accused of having “orthorexia” – a lesser-known eating disorder defined as having “an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with otherwise healthy eating“. I disagree with the notion that these dietary choices are inherently eating disorders like orthorexia, but I do think they can sometimes turn into them.

Continue reading Is Veganism an Eating Disorder?

Defining The Seasonal Body

After a hiatus, The Seasonal Body is back! We will soon cover lots of great topics, but first I would like to dive more deeply into the concept of this project. The name “The Seasonal Body” may not immediately bring to mind everything it encompasses, though hopefully the tagline “connecting food justice, body image and disability” gives you an idea. I would like to flush this out a bit more in this piece, to help ground all the interconnecting topics that will be addressed.

“The Seasonal Body” is twofold: it is both a concept and a framework. First, as a concept, it means that, simply, our bodies are influenced by seasonality and nature. And when there is a disconnect from nature, and especially a lack of interaction with the seasons and with food, issues with our bodies can arise. Thus, an approach to healing and wellbeing is to engage with nature, connect with our food sources, and align our bodies with the seasons.

Some have already discussed the topic of nature disconnection in relation to various aspects of health – which, holistically, includes all aspects of our bodies. For example, the author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” to describe the phenomenon of humans, and especially children, spending less time outdoors. This can have many effects on our bodies, such as depression, attention issues, and decreased exercise. Others in the ecopsychology field specifically focus on nature connection as a vital part of our psychology and wellbeing, and promote ecotherapy, also called “nature therapy”, as an approach to addressing many health issues, and which can be used as part of rehab programs. Horticultural therapy/therapeutic farming is a specific type of ecotherapy that often includes educational and social elements in order to offer skills-training and community development for vulnerable groups of people, while also providing access to fresh, local food. Keep in mind, though, that nature therapy can also be as simple as spending time in a park in solitude.

Continue reading Defining The Seasonal Body

Brain Injury Anniversary

Content warning: brain injury, physical trauma, mental health, depression, anxiety, ableism, pain

How do you commemorate the accident that disabled you? Or should you at all? This is something I had been pondering a few weeks ago, leading up to March 5th – the one-year anniversary of my bike accident that was the start of my current life as a disabled person living with post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

Today – March 18th – is Brain Injury Awareness Day in the U.S. (and March is Brain Injury Awareness Month; though in Canada it’s June). In honour of this, I am sharing with you how I chose to acknowledge the anniversary of my brain injury a couple of weeks ago. On the day of the anniversary, I wrote a letter to my former self (pre-concussion Julie) from my current self (post-concussion Julie), explaining my experience over the past year. I then took the letter to a park, burned it, and rubbed the ashes on myself as a symbol of purification. The whole process was emotional and therapeutic, and I’m glad I was able to honour both the accident and myself in this way.

Before burning the letter, I typed it up to keep a copy. While it is very personal, I have decided to share it here – to help raise awareness about brain injury, as well as to help those around me understand what I am going through. Perhaps other brain injury survivors will relate, though I would also like to express a trigger warning for those who may have had similar difficult experiences.

………………………………………………………….

Dear Pre-Concussion Julie,

How are you? How is life back in early March 2014? I’m guessing swell, as things seem to have been going pretty well for you: you’ve been working a wonderful, new job for the past half year with your dream employer; you live in a beautiful intentional community; you’re involved in various fulfilling volunteer initiatives; you enjoy spending time with friends; you are often found cycling around the city….

Many of these things are going to change for you. You’re about to have an accident that may not seem serious at the time, but will drastically affect you, your abilities, your life. The bike accident will be painful and traumatic, but it’s not the broken nose, cuts and bruises that will change you – it’s a concussion/mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that will have not so mild lasting effects, in the form of post-concussion syndrome. For the next year, and who knows how much longer, you are going to struggle with your brain, your body, your identity. Be brave.

Continue reading Brain Injury Anniversary

Introducing… The Seasonal Body!

Welcome to The Seasonal Body! This is a space dedicated to exploring the intersection of food justice, body image, and disability. Working within an anti-oppressive and intersectional framework, you can expect posts from a range of topics that fit within the realms of feminist food studies, local food advocacy, ecopsychology/nature connection, body positivity, ‘Health at Every Size’/fat acceptance, disability activism, and more.

Full disclosure: much of the content here is based on the personal experiences of me (Julie Nowak). So a bit about me! I am a Toronto-based food justice organizer and educator (however, my current full-time job is focusing on healing after a traumatic brain injury from a bike accident a year ago). Many of my interests also revolve around food: I enjoy growing, cooking and eating food – especially with others in community!

My interest in the intersecting themes of The Seasonal Body comes from my personal experience of finding healing from disordered eating through therapeutic farming and increased access to seasonal food, as well as my current experiences as a disabled person with post-concussion syndrome (PCS).

While I think my experiences as a low-income, disabled woman and eating disorder survivor are of value to share, I am trying to be very mindful about my privilege and the space I take up as a white, educated, thin, cis woman (especially given the lack of other important voices represented in the food justice, body positivity, and disability movements). I hope in the future this website can include other contributing writers; but, for the time being, I will work hard at continually checking my privilege and including anti-oppression analysis. I know I may fail at this and possibly say something problematic; thus, I welcome suggestions on how to improve in this area! (If this is language you are not familiar with, I encourage you to learn more about it. Click here for a good place to start.) Also, I’m working on making the website itself more technologically accessible – something that is taking me a while to learn about (especially with my own computer screen sensitivity issues), so my apologies for the delay on this.

The comment sections are disabled on this website (for my own mental health protection), but you can email me if you’d like to get in touch. Because of my personal low capacity and screen sensitivity, I will probably only post intermittently. To stay in the loop, you can subscribe to receive posts by email, as well as keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter (where you can also share relevant resources with me, which I’d really appreciate!).

This became a much longer first post than intended. So I will end simply by celebrating what The Seasonal Body is about:

Yey bodies! Yey food! Yey seasonality!