Have you heard the term “food desert?”
It means an area where people have little or no access to grocery stores that offer fresh and affordable foods needed to maintain a healthy diet. The food that is for sale in these areas comes from fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
You can tell a person living in a food desert to eat more a more healthy diet, but without access to healthy foods it can be nearly impossible. In those areas, rates of health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are high.
Now let’s think about how that term applies to the first food, breastmilk.
Nursing mothers don’t need access to supermarket in order to provide healthy food for their babies – they need breastfeeding support. That support takes multiple forms, from knowledgeable breastfeeding help, to employer support, to supportive attitudes about nursing in public.
You can tell a mother in a “first food desert” to breastfeed, but without those supports it can be extremely difficult. In these areas, breastfeeding rates are low, rates of infant and child health problems – including infant mortality – are alarmingly high.
Kimberly Seals Allers, journalist and author and IATP Food and Community Fellow of the Kellogg Foundation, set out to investigate places where breastfeeding rates are low and infant mortality is high, to see if these places are in fact “first food deserts,” where the support necessary to make breastfeeding possible is absent. She traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, New Orleans, and Jackson, Mississippi to assess the landscape of breastfeeding support in those communities, interviewing health care providers, child care providers, church leaders, the management of different public places such as museums and malls, and conducting “man on the street” interviews.
What she found underscores the importance of “place,” when it comes to breastfeeding success. In one community, Birmingham, she found:
- No breastfeeding support group of any kind. The nearest one is in a suburban community 15 miles away and not accessible by public transportation
- No WIC breastfeeding peer counselors
- No private nursing areas for moms in any public place
- Unsupportive attitudes toward nursing in public
- Staff at child care centers untrained in handling human milk
- Generally negative sentiment toward breastfeeding in public
- No state law providing for employer accommodations of nursing mothers, and lack of support among employers for mothers who need to pump
- Formula marketing in the hospital and other settings frequented by new mothers
In an interview with me on her findings, Kimberly mentioned that staff at one hospital told her that they were offered monetary incentives by a formula company in exchange for not becoming Baby Friendly.
I asked Kimberly if she saw racial differences in experience, and she confirmed that many of the mothers hurt by this “first food desert” are African American. But she also noted that the bigger dividing line may be class, since low income mothers of any race living in the area face the these obstacles.
Kimberly’s research has uncovered another Booby Trap – a way in which mothers are encouraged to breastfeed and set up to fail. This time the barrier is place. The absence of support in nearly all forms, and the active undermining of breastfeeding success through formula marketing, represent an insurmountable obstacle for most mothers. We are used to hearing about differences in breastfeeding rates by states, but these “first food deserts” can be located anywhere – even in states with relatively high breastfeeding rates.
To do something about this problem, Kimberly has launched a project called “Be First Food Friendly,” calling on the governors of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to increase support for nursing mothers in these communities. We hope you’ll sign on and encourage the eradication of “first food deserts” in these and other communities.