“Oh, you want to know how you can support disability justice? MAKE SOMEONE A POT OF SOUP!” my friend William Maria Rain, a true disability justice OG, yelled at the audience at a disability justice panel at the D Center at the University of Washington, circa 2014 or so. Someone had probably been wringing their hands during the Q&A and timidly asking, “Um, what’s a good way to help the disabled community?” William made the answer very plain: You help disabled people by making sure we’re not dying of starvation in our apartments.
Disabled culture is full of food sharing and abundance. It’s one of the many best-kept disabled secrets about how we love and show up for each other. I can think of a million ways sick and disabled folks I know have shown me and each other sweetness and survival through food, like the time my friend Syrus Postmated me a dozen doughnuts from Toronto when I was having a three-day mental breakdown, or the time my friend texted me to say they had extra apples from the fruit-truck guy who sold outside their building, and would I like some? All the way to the times during the 2020–2021 lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I regularly left a contract-free cooler full of extra collards and tulsi I’d grown on my porch for anyone who needed it.
Crip food sharing is the truth, and it was never truer than when COVID-19 hit. There’s a thing I call the art of disabled pessimism, where you are truly never surprised at any kind of giant disaster or system-failure shitshow because the system not working is not new to you. So when the news was still saying that COVID-19 was just a mild cold and would definitely stay in Wuhan and not spread throughout the world, I drove to DK Market, my local immigrant food warehouse palace in Renton, Washington, and loaded up my cart with the immigrant survival basics: a 50-pound sack of rice, multiple 5-pound bags of red lentils, the really big can of olive oil, coconut milks galore, and enough tea to last for the next three years. I figured my Sri Lankan grandmother, who fled the Japanese invasion of Singapore on the last boat to Colombo, Sri Lanka, during World War II, would have been proud of me for flexing my ancestral skills at surviving disaster.
As COVID-19 did indeed spread all over the world, disabled folks were at increased risk of dying due to care rationing or “ICUgenics,” a term coined by disability justice organizers (including members of the NoBodyIsDisposable Coalition) to describe proposed and ad-hoc ableist medical policies that deny lifesaving care to the disabled, fat, and elderly, and/or Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) because of ableist beliefs that we have a supposed low quality of life and are less deserving of vaccines, equipment, and care. But at the same time, mutual aid and collective care networks were springing up like wildfire.
During this time, one of the biggest acts of everyday disabled resistance I did was sharing my lentils, rice, and tea with friends and strangers who needed them. As mutual aid fueled free fridges and food pantries sprung up all over Seattle, every time I went to The Station, Beacon Hill’s much-loved queer-, Black-, and Latinx-owned community coffee shop, I dropped off some goodies in the Little Free Pantry out front. But I also left yogurt containers full of food on disabled and high-risk friends’ stoops and porches.
After being disabled for my entire adult life, I have a whole stash of low spoons, high-nutrition recipes in my head that I can cook when I’m barely alive and microwave when I’m barely able to get out of bed. I joke that I made the same seven immune-boosting, one-pot recipes during the pandemic: The First Mess’ gingery lentil coconut stew with kale, parippu with rice and mallung, arroz caldo, big chicken soups with fresh herbs, black velvet beans, the quinoa and winter squash stew from Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing, and something I call Stacey soup (named after my friend Stacey Park Milbern). They were all tasty, hearty soups with immune-boosting ingredients — like shitake mushrooms, ginger, and chicken broth — that lasted days, froze and reheated easily, and, I hoped, would help support our immune systems in a sea of viruses and stress.
I’m a disabled brown Taurus for whom food is love. In Sort Of, when Sabi’s mom brought them food in empty desi-brand yogurt containers, I thought, That’s me, just the disabled version. I think about the pots of arroz caldo we left for our friend LL Gimeno, a disabled, Black, Latinx, and trans birth justice worker who had survived a series of health crises, including being in the ICU at the height of early COVID-19, during Nochebuena 2021. We were all so worried about transmission that we didn’t hug; we just texted that the food was there after getting back in the car and frenetically hand-sanitizing. But it was still an act of love for our friend, who was sick and Latinx and missing Puerto Rican food. I think about the earliest no-toilet-paper, strict stay-at-home-order pandemic days of spring 2020, when my friend who was disabled but not immunocompromised braved going into Red Apple, the local grocery, and then dropped off a big block of Tillamook cheddar. They left it on a rock 20 feet from our front door. We carefully waved at each other, wrapping our arms around our own chests and hugging ourselves in a pandemic-safer gesture of love. All of these were acts of disabled love in action.
It didn’t come from nowhere, these disabled COVID-19 food shares. And it’s not an accident, the ways disabled people ask each other if we have enough food, Venmo pizza money, and prepare and share lavish meals for each other. Often, this is because we know what it’s like to be hungry and broke; we know how easy it is to fall off the radar of the abled and neurotypical world.
When I first became sick with CFS/ME in my early 20s, I was hungry a lot. Even though I lived and worked within radical activist communities that talked about mutual aid, nobody could really fathom me getting chronically ill in my 20s, and the concepts of meal trains, crowdfunding, and collective care were decades away. I was sleeping 18 hours a day, crawling to the bathroom, and barely surviving on an average of $600 a month in off-the-books income in Canada, where I hadn’t gotten work papers yet. During those years, when I was some of the sickest I would be in my life, almost no one checked in on me, let alone brought me any chili. I stayed close with an ex-partner who had been physically abusive because they were still one of the few people who checked in on me and brought food.
I never want that to happen to me or anyone again, so I make that mac and cheese or buy extra cans of whatever when I venture out to the store, to drop off to friends who don’t have the executive function or cash to grocery shop, or when it’s not safe for them to go into the store because they’re immune-suppressed. In the interim two and a half decades, cultural shifts brought about by the disability justice movement and organizing around the concept of grassroots fundraising — mixed with ever-more-dire cutbacks to EBT and other social safety nets — have also popularized the concept of collective care, care webs, and crowdfunding for financial food, medical, and other care needs. Cooking extra servings of a dish, checking in on folks, and dropping off food and medicine is part of this movement.
I want to be clear: This crip food sharing is not just about boosting immunity or staving off hunger. A lot of us also share food because we want to give each other sweetness. The second-best-kept secret of the disabled community is that crips are really, really good at savoring life and pleasure. It’s not an accident that my book, The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs, has recipes in it. I love flavor, and life is not worth living without delicious shit to eat. As a fibromyalgia- and osteoarthritis-having person, I’ve been on the anti-inflammatory train for a while, but I’ve also been on the train of fuck it, where I can eat an entire large bag of chips for dinner, or go get the really good doughnuts from King Donuts and a rib-eye steak. Follow what your body wants because life is short, disabled joy is magic, and disabled pleasure is always good.
Since the height of mutual aid during the early years of the pandemic, many food-sharing initiatives have shuttered or faded away. But disabled food (and mask, and air purifier) initiatives continue. We fed each other before COVID-19. We kept each other alive when COVID-19 led millions of people to discover the concept of mutual aid for the first time. And our crip resiliency, love, and commitment to each other will continue, whether or not the rest of the world is remembering and practicing mutual aid. Two weeks out from moving to a new city, a disabled friend and I shared that one of the things we are most looking forward to is bringing each other food when we’re sick and contributing to existing collective-care kitchens in our new city.
My friend William was right. Disability justice lives in the ways we crips feed each other with love, pleasure, and flavor. Forever.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a long term disability justice person and the author or co-editor of 10 books, most recently The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Carolina Hoyos is a Two Spirit Afro-Indigenous Latine voice actor.