“First Food” is Real Food Justice



I’ve got a problem with the food system conversation in the U.S.  It neglects to include what I call the “first food”—breast milk—and emphasize the critical importance of breastfeeding. No conversation about equitable food systems 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?

Consider the facts: 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. 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.

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In addition, 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. And it is equally hard to understand why the food movement isn’t talking more about breastfeeding.

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 politically 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.

That would be true justice for all.

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View Comments (7)

  1. Friday, August 26th, 2011
    usefull information! thx
  2. Friday, August 26th, 2011
    A great essay that seeks to bring into the larger food desert conversation an important and still very significantly marginalized food justice issue. I think the attempt to draw causation is also important, as understanding the root causes will help provide solutions. I wonder if part of the lingering effects of historical trauma might not be a cultural predilection for thinking that being able to provide formula for infants rather than breast-feeding them might represent a social success, that is, a move up out of the world in which black women's breastfeeding was yet another means of exploitation.
  3. Friday, August 26th, 2011
    I am currently working on a thesis about food deserts, and I find it very interesting to consider this topic as a food desert. I would have never thought about it before, but it makes sense.
  4. Anjuli
    Sunday, August 28th, 2011
    Do you have any real evidence that African American women do not breast feed because of wet nursing? This seems to be a lot of baseless speculation.

    I also think that breastfeeding doesn't get enough coverage. But what about the risks of breastfeeding due to contamination of mother's milk?
  5. Debra
    Monday, August 29th, 2011
    Wonderful, excellent article. I appreciate the discussion your article will generate. Thank you!
    I have been disappointed by many of the public health documents that have come out in the last few months that have failed to mention human milk/breastfeeding, unless you search page by page to find mention of this critical first food.
    Breastfeeding has to be at the table whenever we talk about the health and wellbeing of our citizens. Breastfeeding has to be listed visibly in goals and objectives inorder to make breatfeeding the norm in our country.
  6. Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
    While I think some of the points this article brings up are important, it misses a big reason women do not breastfeed. They have to go back to work. And although many of us get to work in cushy corporate jobs where there is a nicely decorated, quiet room for pumping, I imagine that isn't the reality for the women you are writing about in this article.

    It would be interesting to study the breastfeeding habits of stay-at-home mothers across different backgrounds - ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic. Perhaps that would shed light on the effect culture, history and access to healthy food have on breastfeeding outcomes, apart from mother-infant separation.