Disability & Food: Results and Conclusions

Iconic picture of a meal place setting with black lines on a yellow background

120 people completed my online Disability & Food survey. That's a pretty good number, and the final results look pretty much the same as they have looked all along, which suggests they aren't just random. I don't know that I have any stunning conclusions, but let's see the results and explore what they might mean.

Question 1 "How often do you have the following kinds of meals?"

Results:

  1. Home prepared and cooked (strongly weighted)
  2. Cooked and prepared by someone else
  3. Frozen dinners
  4. Home delivery or take-out
  5. Eating out at restaurants
  6. School, college, or workplace cafeteria
  7. Meal kits by mail
  8. Meals provided in a residential facility

Respondent comments:

Home prepared once & ate for a few days like lasagna- often

Eat what's ready: fruit, chips, etc. Also try to cook batch like soup, stew, etc that'll last for days. I forget to eat & cooking for 1 when can only eat 1/2 cup at a time takes more energy & pain than it's worth.

I live alone.

Medical Formula, by mail

I work at a restaurant and very often scrounge from food orders that were messed up or good that is made specifically for the crew to eat. Plus I get an employee discount. But then there are days when I am too tired mentally/physically or in too much pain to expend energy making something myself. I really need to invest in a good delivery service. Recently I've invested in a business that will send you meal cups in the mail (like 24 at a time) and you just need to add water. I got them thru Amazon. I know I spend too much money on eating out but it often simplifies things, as well as cleanup.

My partner does the cooking now that my physical health has deteriorated further.

The majority of what I eat is probably "snack" food. My condition uses up a lot of salt, so I eat a lot of salty potato chips and gatorade. Otherwise it's stuff I can either open up and eat directly (cheese sticks, canned olives, jerky, etc) or stuff that requires a quick zap in the microwave (pre-cooked sausages, gluten-free corn dogs, leftovers from a restaurant, etc)

I am celiac, so I prepare most of my own food so that I do not get gluten-ed.

I frequently eat shelf-stable food that doesn't need to be refrigerated because I know that sometimes I won't be able to leave my room. So I stock up on things like granola bars and beef jerky a lot of the time.

What I can and can't eat, and thus how my food must be processed and prepared, is a huge part of my disability. I eat "frozen dinners" and packets of things I can heat in the microwave, but they all have to be prepared in my home from scratch, a few exceptions of specific brands of things in cans or boxes.

Only recently started cooking at home so much -- started treatment for my undiagnosed ADHD in November at age 45. Now I can more easily plan to cook and get the right items purchased in advance, and make time to prepare it. I've wasted a lot of emotions and food over the years on good intentions and poor implementation.

Refrigerated, microwaveable meals Microwaveable boxed pantry meals

i mostly eat food that i get from the grocery store and that comes out of the package edible... like bread. or fruit. everything else, i cannot prepare

I get the majority of my groceries via grocery delivery service. I assumed that counts as home delivery but wasn't sure. That being said, while I do my own cooking, my mobility tends to dictate how elaborate my meal will be. Not that my meals are really that elaborate lol but how much spoon / labor will be involved. For an example, my kitchen is not fully wheelchair accessible, and so if I want to reach certain cabinets etc., I need to be able to get up out of my chair. So there are times, I just don't have access to certain foods in my kitchen and will eat whatever I can reach. For this reason, I very very rarely use the stove. Me and the oven are BFFs though lol

Thoughts:

I was surprised to see home preparation and cooking pretty far in the lead. I guess I assumed that disabled people would be less likely to do their own home cooking than most.

If you look a little deeper, you see that even though home cooking came out on top, only 40% say they do it all or most of the time, and most respondents seem to rely on a roughly even mix of home cooking, cooking done by someone else, frozen dinners, and delivery / take-out.

Several respondents note in their comments that they rely heavily on home cooking because of very specific dietary needs related to their disabilities. This is a wrinkle that I had not anticipated at all, probably because I have never had any health or allergy-related food restrictions myself. Nor am I a vegetarian. In fact, I've only recently started to think much at all about the quality or healthiness of my diet. I'm not sure if that's a privilege or a liability.

One thing that promoted me to set up this survey is the recent popularity ... at least in the media I consume ... of home delivered meal kit subscriptions, like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. So, it's interesting that this option got the next to lowest score of the 8 options I offered. Maybe it's the high cost. For me, it's because the recipes all sound too fancy and hipster for my tastes. In all of the ads I've heard for these services, I have never yet heard a described recipe that sounded appetizing to me. Besides, they sound convenient, but probably still require a lot of labor before you can actually chow down.

Q2 Sources: "How often do you get your food from the following?"

  1. Supermarkets (very strongly weighted)
  2. Someone else shops for you
  3. Delivery from online shopping sites
  4. Neighborhood markets or farmer's markets
  5. Convenience stores
  6. Delivery from local stores

Respondent comments:

I V fluids via medical supply

I interpreted 'online shopping sites' to include online supermarket ordering and delivery.

Where your questions only go down to almost never it's actually never which you haven't got

Protein powder online. Shopping is usually once a month. Buy to last. Maybe occasional trip out. Shopping is painful.

I shop for my own groceries.

Due to coordination, vision limitations I cannot use the apps/smartphone/do financial transactions on smartphone or computer, which prevents me from shopping online and most delivery places. I often go hungry as a result.

Grow my own food - very often

Local non chain shops, butcher, fishmonger , greengrocer ( fruit, veg & healthy groceries e.g.. GF products, ) good quality and locally grown organic produce etc quality breads, sheep/goat yoghurt etc.

The only money I have for buying groceries is my food stamps, so I'm very limited in where I can buy food. If I eat out it's always my partner paying.

I am celiac, so I prepare most of my own food so that I do not get gluten-ed.

Staff take him shopping

I live in a city with multiple food coops. I shop there most often, but no one store carries all the foods I need in a week. Food shopping involves stops at two to four stores a trip. I do not drive and public transport is inaccessible to me. I need rides for all of this.

Thoughts:

Supermarket shopping comes out on top, by a very wide margin. Again, that surprises me. I probably should have added a question or two about transportation and geography though. Most people consider supermarkets the best and most economical place to get groceries, but I wonder how many disabled people can't use them easily because they live in places without supermarkets and lack transportation to get to them.

The next two most heavily weighted categories ... someone shopping for you and takeout / delivery ... both rely on others, and probably also can be done without leaving home. These are the kinds of options that one would expect to be popular among disabled people. But again, they're not as heavily relied upon as one might conventionally predict.

Respondent comments bring up diet restrictions here, too, but also limited income and physical inaccessibility as factors that shape and restrict how people get their food supplies.

Q3 Disabilities: "Which category(s) best describe your type of disability? (check any that apply)"

97 with physical disabilities
51 with mental health disabilities
31 with sensory disabilities
20 with other cited disabilities
19 with cognitive disabilities
15 with learning disabilities

Respondent comments:

developmental disorder

Language

Severe food, environmental (including inhalant) allergies--often requiring hospitalization

Autism

Autism (unsure where to put that)

Eyes fatigue easily, and after many years of difficulty and little help due to invisibility of my disability (which is TBI) I am exhausted and don't h ave energy for interacting with others, constantly teaching, explaining etc. since no one understands.

chronic illness

In addition to mobility disability, have medical conditions affecting diet

hearing loss, food allergies

health disability, autistic

Autism, then not listed above- 1 of my kids is autistic, one has Down syndrome, both have anaphylactic food allergies, I have a medical concern that requires me to eat a totally different diet than my partner and kids

Visual

Autistic with sensory sensitivities, IBS, Coeliac, Lactose intolerant, Hypothyroidism, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Cancer survivor surviving radical surgery, heavy duty chemo, radiotherapies, Restless legs Syndrome, insomnia, and more, GAD

Food allergies play a major role in my eating/shopping habits

not sure where autism goes in here. also chronic illnesses

Chronic pain/traumatic brain injury

Autistic, and irritable Bowel Syndrome and PCOS. Not a fun combo.

Chronic illness- asthma

Medical conditions

Type 1 diabetes

Thoughts:

I probably should have included a few more disability types, since there is a lot of overlap and ambiguity among these very broad, generic categories ... particularly mental health, cognitive, and learning disabilities. I also wish I had added a chronic illness category for people with conditions that more readily fall into that category.

On the other hand, I think allowing people to choose more than one category means we get a pretty good picture of who is responding, and the vast majority of respondents had some kind of physical disabilities, sometimes along with others.

So?

Those are the survey results, in detail and summary. But what about my own shopping and eating habits?

I do most of my grocery shopping online with delivery by mail. I order once a month. I've only been doing this for about 4 months though. Before that, I shopped at a supermarket about once a month, and picked up things at convenience stores here and there. Even though I drive, my shopping was definitely too irregular, physically difficult, and unnecessarily expensive.

Before I started grocery shopping online, my biggest problem was getting fresh fruit and vegetables, buying household supplies in bulk, and getting anything large or heavy ... like big bottles of milk, juice, or soda, or big bags of sugar (for my twice daily tea).

I eat frozen dinners about half the time. A quarter of the time I eat take-out, and another quarter is conventional home cooking.

Speaking of fruit ... and the mini-controversy last year about whether selling pre-cut or packaged fruit is wasteful or accessible ... I do buy pre-cut fruit and bagged salad, as well as large boxes of single-serve fruit cups.

I often think about these new meal kits by mail services, but I never seriously consider them because they are expensive. And anyway, their big selling point seems to be that you don't have to worry about ingredients or portion sizes. I used to have that kind of problem, but at this point I know pretty much what I will and won't actually prepare and eat. For me it's not hard to figure out. But for others it might be more of a thing.

Conclusions:

I don't really have any, except for this:

If I had unlimited power and resources to make one radical change in American society, I sometimes think I would institute free public breakfast buffets. Two things make me think about this:

TV shows about the British upper class, where everyone just comes to the dining room in the morning and the servants have laid out a full range of breakfast foods on a big sideboard.

Motel chains that offer free breakfast.

My life would improve enormously if I could easily got to a big breakfast buffet every morning and just dish up a plate of whatever looked good. You could do the same thing with lunches or dinners, but for me, breakfast is the thing. I love breakfast food, but it tends to be labor intensive, and my body is at its worst in the morning. It's the time I need good food the most, and am least equipped to prepare it.

What new kinds of food or shopping services would improve your life and independence? What changes have you made in this area that have made a difference in your life? Are these strictly matters of individual planning and innovation, or are there larger-scale systemic changes that would be both feasible and helpful to disabled people?

Share more of your comments below! And thanks for helping with this survey!