Addressing Normativity & Ableism in Food Studies

Dana Ferrante

Elaine Gerber (ed), “Disability and Food,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):5

Despite food studies’ interdisciplinary, often intersectional purview, the field has yet to fully engage with disability as a critical category of identity and difference. In practice, food studies scholars already discuss at length social, cultural, and environmental factors that are ‘disabling.’ From injuries wrought by unsafe working conditions on farms, to the cacophony of social, cultural, and medical discourses surrounding the “obesity epidemic”, food scholars frequently engage with questions of access/inaccess, inclusion/exclusion, and the culturally-contingent boundaries of the body, society, and nature. However, very little food scholarship explicitly engages with the notion of disability, or ableism, in theory or methodology. In this essay, I argue that the field of food studies needs to embrace disability in theory, research, and praxis. To ignore the ableist, normative, position from which food scholars pose questions and generate conclusions will only “reinscribe the oppressions” currently endemic to our foodways and food systems into our collective food futures.[1]                                                              

At the confluence of food studies and disability studies, the “Disability and Food” issue of Disability Studies Quarterly (2007) is a foundational work in the intersectional food studies canon. Edited by anthropologist and disability scholar Elaine Gerber, the volume’s empirical studies and first-person commentaries are invaluable not only for the insights they provide, but for the questions they pose—many of which still remain unanswered. While each piece thoroughly challenges the normative position from which food studies is typically conducted, all eleven essays are strongest when read in tandem.[2] This volume boasts research from a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, sociology, political science, and media studies—with cultural commentaries in the form of memoir, oral history, and creative writing laying bare not only the “social, cultural, and environmental nature of disability” and food’s role therein, but the personal, lived experiences of people with disabilities.[3] 

Amongst the many themes covered, this volume critically broadens normative ideas of food access. Webber et al. plainly charts the “financial as well as hidden costs of disability,”[4] while the work of Lance, Kudlick, Bail, and Davies reveals how the social model of disability complicates the idea that food access, or inaccess, is simply a question of geography and monetary resources.[5] In reality, food accessibility is governed by a variety of environmental, cultural, and social factors, including physical capabilities, time, social exclusion/inclusion, physical landscapes, availability of shopping assistants, etc.[6] Given the high rate of food insecurity reported amongst households with people with disabilities and the cyclical relationship between poverty and disability, disability as an experience and category of identity must become a more explicit focus in discussions of food access. [7]

Of equal importance is the volume’s explicit engagement with how “the social construction of food and eating may create disabling conditions and/or maintain disability boundaries,” such as the media’s construction of fatness as deviant and the food abuses of institutional facilities.[8] Other themes covered include food control/choice, independence, and infantilization. Through food, a substance which is material and symbolic, these authors expose the socio-environmental nature of disability, as Saerberg so aptly demonstrates in his discussion of role reversal in relation to the ‘Dining in the Dark’ phenomenon. Ultimately, this scholarship destabilizes discourses of food that rely on authenticity, normalcy, stability, and purity in relation to human experience.[9] Actively incorporating the social model of disability into discussions of how “societies around the globe structure inclusion/exclusion, citizenship, and personhood through food and eating” will both uncover previous injustices as well as bring to light future models for more equitable food studies research, and in turn, a more just food system. [10]  

In terms of methodology, scope, and authorship, “Disability and Food” embodies the disability rights mantra “Nothing About Us Without Us”. Given the diversity of experiences of people with disabilities, the issue’s blending of multidisciplinary research from scholars with and without disabilities, alongside cultural commentaries from people with disabilities, is not arbitrary, but essential to ensure inclusivity. Furthermore, with only about 4% of faculty in higher-education identifying as disabled (compared to 22% in the general US population), inclusivity also means expanding what falls under the category of “academic” writing—and who receives invitations to academic conferences—to ensure people with disabilities are duly regarded as the experts of their own lived experiences.[11] In addition to expanding outward, food studies must rework existing methodological norms within the field, such as including ability/disability when collecting demographic data, identifying ableist biases in a research project’s scope or findings, and posing questions that center the experiences of people with disabilities, mirroring the manner in which many scholars in the field now account for gender and race in their work. Moving beyond inclusivity, to ensure such research promotes justice and equity, future scholars and scholar-activists, particularly in the social sciences, should look to methods that are based in partnerships, community self-determination, and reciprocity—such as action research, participatory action research, and community-based participatory action research—in their research on food and disability. Studies in the humanities can also enable community self-determination when considering which historical or critical questions to pursue, what texts are “worthy” of critical analysis, and how to make their findings accessible.   

More than a decade since their publication, the articles within “Disability and Food”are routinely cited by the handful of scholars explicitly working at the intersections of these two fields. Nevertheless, food studies as a whole has yet to address the normative, ableist vantage point from which much food scholarship is studied, taught, and produced. As Abby Wilkerson, a philosopher who has done invaluable work at the nexus of these fields, so eloquently summarizes, “bodily and mental variabilities and vulnerabilities should be understood as definitive features of human existence, rather than departures from the norm.”[12] It is my belief—and hope—that food studies’ interdisciplinary, increasingly intersectional, methodological and theoretical purview will enable scholars to recognize disability’s place at the table. 

Suggested Further Reading

Gerber, Elaine. 2020. “Ableism and its Discontents: Food as a Form of Power, Control, and Resistance Among Disabled People Living in U.S. Institutions.” Food and Foodways, 28:1, 1-21, DOI: 10.1080/07409710.2020.1718273.

Hall, Kim Q. 2014. “Toward a Queer Crip Feminist Politics of Food.” Philosophia 4(2), 177-196.

–––. 2017. “Cripping Sustainability, Realizing Food Justice.” In Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara. Nebraska: University Nebraska Press.

Schwartz, Naomi, Ron Buliung, and Kathi Wilson. 2019. “Disability and Food Access and Insecurity: A Scoping Review of the Literature.” Health & Place (57): 107-121.

Simpson, Natasha. 2017. “Disabling Justice? The Exclusion of People with Disabilities from the Food Justice Movement.” In Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities, edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara. Nebraska: University Nebraska Press.

Wilkerson, Abby. 2019. “Not Your Father’s Family Farm: Toward Transformative Rhetorics of Food and Agriculture.” In Food, Feminisms, Rhetorics, edited by M.A. Goldthwaite. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Williams-Forson, Psyche and Abby Wilkerson. 2011. “Intersectionality and Food Studies.” Food, Culture, & Society, 14(1), 7-28.


[1] Psyche Williams-Forson, “Who’s in the Kitchen with Dinah? Intersectionality andFood Studies,” Food, Culture, & Society 14, no. 1 (2011): 7-17.

[2] See the section of Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007) entitled “Special Topic: Food Studies and Disability Studies”.

[3] Elaine Gerber, “Food Studies & Disability Studies: Introducing a Happy Marriage,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):

[4] Caroline B. Webber, Jeffery Sobal, Jamie S. Dollahite, “Physical Disabilities and Food Access Among Limited Resource Households,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):

[5] G. Denise Lance, “Do the Hands that Feed Us Hold Us Back?: Implications of Assisted Eating,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):; Catherine Kudlick, “Cultural Commentary: Cream Cheese, Potato Chips, and the Anger in an Egg Salad Sandwich,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):; Margaret Bail, “Cultural Commentary: Institutionalizing the De-Institutionalization of Food,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):; Charlotte Aull Davies, “Food and the Social Identities of People with Learning Disabilities,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):

[6] Webber et al., “Physical Disabilities and Food Access.”

[7] See Naomi Schwartz, Ron Buliung, and Kathi Wilson, “Disability and Food Access and Insecurity: A Scoping Review of the Literature.” Health & Place 57 (2019): 107-121,; Gerber, “Food Studies & Disability Studies.”

[8] Schwartz et al., “Disability and Food Access and Insecurity.”; Gerber, “Food Studies & Disability Studies.”; Jeff Moyer, “Cultural Commentary: Food And Hunger, excerpt from the CD Lest We Forget… (transcript),” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):; Karyn Ogata Jones and Margaret R. Smith, “Fat, Furious, and Forever Wanting Food”: Prader-Willi Syndrome in Major Newspapers, 2000-2005,” Disability Studies Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2007):

[9] Kim Q Hall, “Toward a Queer Crip Feminist Politics of Food,” Philosophia 4, no. 2 (2014): 177-196.

[10] Gerber, “Food Studies & Disability Studies.”

[11] Joseph Grigely, “The Neglected Demographic: Faculty Members With Disabilities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2017,

[12] Abby Wilkerson, “Food and Disability Studies: Vulnerable Bodies, Eating or “Not Eating” Food, Culture, & Society 14, no. 1 (2011): 17.


Dana Ferrante (she/hers) is a Master’s candidate in Gastronomy at Boston University. Her research centers on the intersection of food and disability studies. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she studied Italian History and Literature with a focus on nineteenth century Southern Italian cookbooks.