As a mother of two, I’m just loving the food revolution in America—a grassroots effort to make food healthier and more accessible to all. I’m a huge fan of efforts like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Farm to School programs, and amazing organizations like Food Corps, that work tirelessly to affect what our children eat at school and teach them to love healthy food for life.
But is school age too late? And what about the “first food”—breast milk? I’m concerned that the food system conversation in the U.S. neglects to get to the root of the matter by including the “first food” and fails to emphasize the critical importance of breastfeeding as we try to build a healthier generation of children. The truth is, no conversation about equitable food systems for all can truly exist without including the first food and understanding how the racial and social inequities around breastfeeding adversely affect vulnerable populations.
If access to healthy food is a basic human right then doesn’t that right start at birth? Shouldn’t our smallest and most vulnerable citizens have fair and just access to the healthiest food for them?
If so, then we need to start asking why more mothers aren’t accessing the first food for longer periods or at all. Consider the facts: Our unimpressive breastfeeding rates across racial lines show the full picture. In the United States, only about 13 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta. Meanwhile in South Asia, 44 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed for six months, according to UNICEF.
The situation among African American women is even more severe. For the past 30 years, breastfeeding rates among black women, particularly those in underserved, food desert communities, have been significantly lower than all other ethnicities. Meanwhile, in the U.S., African American infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday than other infants. In some cities, the stats are even more sobering: Memphis, Tennessee ranks at the top of the list for infant deaths in American cities—where a baby dies every 43 hours.
A recent study [NS1] concluded that increasing breastfeeding rates alone could help close this racial gap across the board. The many health benefits of breastfeeding, including an improved immune system and fewer ear and respiratory infections would address some of the leading causes of infant death in low-income communities.
For children of all hues, a greater engagement of breastfeeding could lead to a healthier generation of youngsters. After all, several studies, including one by researchers at the University of Copenhagen show that breastfed infants are more likely to try new foods later in life. Because breast milk contains flavors from foods eaten by mothers, breastfed infants are exposed to a variety of tastes early in life. In contrast, artificial baby milk (formula) always tastes the same. These nuances are simple yet powerful steps that can lead to a greater likelihood for more varied and healthier food choices as an older child.
Given these sobering facts, it is hard to argue against the fact that by removing the barriers to access to the first food we can have a tremendous impact on infant nutrition and maternal health. That includes breaking down racial barriers and but also creating an honest conversation about the external forces that influence a woman’s decision to breastfeed or not. And it is equally hard to understand why the so-called food revolution forgets about infants.
Instead, far too many babies are born into “first food” deserts, communities with limited breastfeeding resources and support. The reasons why more African American women aren’t relying on the first food for their newborns are a multifaceted mosaic—ripe with political nuances, deep racial undertones, social taboos, and complex cultural subtleties—similar to many other areas of the food systems work.
Some of the barriers may be related to historical trauma. During slavery, slave owners used and purchased black women as wet nurses for their own children, often forcing these mothers to stop nursing their own infants to care for others.
“On the one hand, wet nursing claimed the benefits of breastfeeding for the offspring of white masters while denying or limiting those health advantages to slave infants. On the other hand, wet nursing required slave mothers to transfer to white offspring the nurturing and affection they should have been able to allocate to their own children,” writes historian Wilma A. Dunaway, in the book The African American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. And since breastfeeding reduces fertility, slave owners forced black women to stop breastfeeding early so that they could continue breeding, often to the health detriment of their own infants, Dunaway writes.
Although African American women had a stunted and complex breastfeeding experience at the hands of slave owners hundreds of years ago, that may still linger culturally today. Perhaps an unconscious legacy of thinking that breastfeeding is something we did for others and not for ourselves.
Then there’s something I call the National Geographic factor—that is, most of the images we see of black women breastfeeding are semi-naked women in Africa whose lives seem so far away from our modern, African American lifestyle and experience.
A lack of culturally competent breastfeeding resources in our communities also play a part.
Whatever the root causes, the correlative impact is clear: A woman is more likely to eat nutritious food when breastfeeding. Conversely, when a woman lives in a food desert and knows her diet is not and cannot easily be healthy, nutritious and affordable, she is less likely to breastfeed.
Our destinies are inextricably linked.
By breaking downs the racial and social barriers to the first food, we can give more infants a healthier and more equitable start in life; make the first food, fair food and improve the health of their mothers, too.
In the broader community, the conversation must include existential matters like how connected women are to the experience and how breastfeeding works in the actual context of our lives. We need to address and name the psychological, sociological, economic, political and cultural forces that are undermining our breastfeeding experience, from the back door deals between hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to the loneliness and frustration that can also be a part of the breastfeeding experience.
We need to understand how breastfeeding, which should be one of the most nurturing experiences for a mother, became “angrified” and how these invisible yet insidious factors are creating a muddled environment where mothers are not fully accessing the best nutrition for their infant.
Removing the barriers of access and creating a new, honest conversation around the first food is the only way to build a nation of healthier children from the start. And only that would be a true food revolution.