On peeled oranges, dehumanisation, and social attitudes

If you spend a lot of time on the internet, especially on social media, you’ve probably seen the meme floating around: A photo of a peeled orange inside a plastic container, clearly labeled as a Whole Foods product, with the caption: ‘If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.’ It’s supposed to be a mockery of Whole Foods’ tendency to sell really bizarre and overpriced things (asparagus water, anyone?), especially in light of the fact that it pitches itself as ecologically conscious, and something involving wasteful packaging kind of undermines its whole green cred. So wasteful, the internet pronounces gleeful. So backwards. So pointless.

Except that here’s the thing: There’s actually a market of people who want peeled, precut, and otherwise preprepped fruits and vegetables, and it’s not just because they’re ‘lazy’ and don’t care about the planet. It includes numerous disabled people as well as older adults, some of whom have problems with hand dexterity, tasks that require fine motor skills, or something as simple as peeling an orange while dealing with hand tremors. Or it’s disabled people working in kitchens that haven’t been adapted who would otherwise have to dangerously perch cutting boards on their laps in order to prep fruits and veggies. Or, yes, it’s people who have very limited time and resources and find it easier to make a stir fry with fresh vegetables if they can get them washed, cut, and ready to use.

Do products that are already prepared have a shorter shelf life? Yes, they certainly do. Nature’s packaging is pretty solid and it’s designed to increase durability and improve the chances of a given fruit or veggie getting a chance to spread its genetic material. Does product packaging come at an environmental cost, especially when products could technically be sold loose? Well, yes, it does, and no one’s going to dispute that: Plastics, even recycled plastics, require considerable energy to produce and break down.

But you know where the bigger source of waste is? Uneaten, discarded food. Some 2/3 of food produced globally goes nearly directly into the garbage, including at chains like Whole Foods (check out their dumpsters sometime). If a peeled orange is going to get eaten, it’s doing much more good in a disabled person’s kitchen than an unpeeled orange is doing rotting at the back of a supply truck. Period.

But this isn’t as simple as mocking something that seems silly. Maybe, just maybe, this is not for you, and before you mock the food choices of others, you should get back in your lane. A very predictable internet cycle happened in response to this meme where it first started going viral.

  • Let’s all laugh at the meme, isn’t Whole Foods ridiculous?
  • Hey actually, products packaged like this are useful for some people, please stop.
  • Outrage culture!!! People always look for something to be angry about!!!
  • No really, people deserve access to fresh fruits and vegetables and some people cannot access them any other way, please stop.
  • This isn’t about you! So what if you can’t eat oranges, there are other things! The environment!
  • No really, please stop.

The end effect was superbly dehumanising. Because disabled people have needs, and society should accommodate them instead of treating their needs as ridiculous or somehow damaging to the public. People were actually straight up saying that human beings were less important than mocking a plastic-wrapped orange. Which left many disabled people with a bitter taste in their mouths, a larger reflection of problems with the environmental movement and disability, as it’s a movement that has historically been extremely disablist.

Many people, environmentalists or not, think disabled people are a waste of resources (and, by extension, space). It makes people angry that disabled people require accommodations, whether they be mobility equipment, prepackaged food, assistance with tasks of daily living, or any number of other things. Disabled people get told they’re sucking up financial, social, and ecological resources and don’t have a right to exist. That is, functionally, what people were saying when they hammered away at disabled people for defending their right to eat an orange just like everyone else.

Numerous obstacles lie in the way of obtaining and eating fresh fruits and vegetables when you’re disabled. Poverty is higher in the disability community, making it challenging to afford fresh food, especially because short shelf life can conflict with mobility. If you can only shop once a week, you need to strategise carefully, and that may include something like treating a fresh piece of fruit as an exotic treat rather than an everyday object you grab at the grocery store because it looks good. Moreover, as discussed above, it’s harder for some people to handle food prep with some types of fruit and vegetable products.

Peeled, precut, chopped, and other prepackaged foods make it easier for people to access the foods they want independently. Some people with impairments that limit the ability to handle food have aides, which is great, but they may not want their aides to waste valuable hours on food prep, or, more importantly, they may want the feeling of independently saying ‘I think I’ll have an orange’ and eating one, rather than having to wait for an aide to come on shift and then ask for help.

People often ask for examples of pernicious disablism, and this is one: People were descending upon the disability community to tell them that a product they found useful (albeit one not necessarily designed for them) was ‘wasteful’ and ‘lazy,’ and that the rights of disabled people to live independently and make active choices about their diets were less important than the environment. These kinds of attitudes are precisely why so many disabled people feel so alienated from social movements — for while I happen to be capable of peeling an orange (currently), why on Earth would I want to support a movement that tells my fellow disabled people who are less agile than I am that they don’t have a right to eat fruit?

Image: Oranges, Vladimir Agafonkin, Flickr