Overpriced peeled oranges and sliced cauliflower in plastic boxes… pre-packaged food has a bad rap. It’s not good for the environment and supermarkets are increasingly under pressure from consumers to ditch it. However, disabled rights activist, Shona Cobb, who has Marfan syndrome, changed the dialogue when she pointed out that many disabled people rely on pre-packaged food.
If you have a disability, it’s not always easy to eat healthily. Using a knife to cut up veggies, opening cooking staples like a can of peeled tomatoes or even draining pasta can be a challenge if you have mobility issues. “Accessible food is so important for people like myself who can’t always prepare meals from scratch,” explains Shona. “If I didn’t have access to pre-packed food, then I would have to rely on ready meals, which isn’t that healthy and is also just boring!”
It’s unlikely that supermarkets were targeting disabled people when they pre-packaged food, but it did find a niche market with the disabled community, people who are pressed for time, and anyone who loves courgettini. Unfortunately, the disadvantage – other than the price – is that the plastic can’t be recycled.
Plastic in our oceans, landfills running out of space and unrecyclable takeaway cups… we’re all more conscious of our carbon footprint these days.
Supermarkets started charging for plastic bags a few years ago, and recently announced they won’t stock them at all. Cutting down on plastic is good for the environment, but Shona argues that disabled people often face the hidden costs of removing plastic and industries don’t take their needs into account when they make big changes. “Restaurants are banning plastic straws, which is great – for the environment,” says Shona. “They’re not providing any alternatives and expecting disabled people to supply their own and pick up the costs. The disabled community and the food industry need to work together to ensure waste reduction rather than keeping our needs secondary.”
Shona argues that the issue around pre-packaged food has been conflated: criticism that it’s “lazy” is ableist, and the real problem is that supermarkets need to use sustainable materials for these, and indeed, all their products. “What we need to encourage is more recyclable materials,” urges Shona. “We all have a problem with the plastic waste. Some people said that disabled people’s rights are not above the environment, but doesn’t need to be accessible food versus plastic – we can have both.” One way to move forward would be to get rid of single-use plastic and use recyclable packaging – and think of more accessible products for disabled cooks that are both reasonably priced and ethically packaged.