First Food Deserts: Rethinking Food Access for Infants

Mother and daugherFor years, we’ve explored (and debated) the concept of food deserts. Call it what you like, one thing is certain—there are clear disparities in access and availability to healthful, nourishing food across community lines. Efforts such as opening a 26,000 square foot Whole Foods in Detroit and a 29,000 square foot store in Newark, New Jersey are seen as applaudable (also debatable) ways to counteract the fresh food lacks in these communities. But what about babies? The truth is, in far too many places the inequities of access to the optimal nutrition begin at birth. And not even a newly built Whole Foods can fix that.

That’s because the best first food for newborns can’t be found in the many aisles of Whole Foods (the place I call Whole Paycheck). It is found in mothers who have the distinct privilege of creating the original and most complete “whole food”—breast milk. Yet, in many communities, infants are missing out on the proven preventative health benefits of breast milk because mothers can’t access the support and resources they need to successfully breastfeed. In fact, these areas are virtual “deserts” of support. And while receiving breastfeeding support in the hospital is powerful, if a woman leaves the hospital after two or three days and enters a community that is a desert of first food support, she is still in a set up for failure.

Just as the food movement has realized that creating hyper-local food access in communities of need is the next frontier for creating healthier Americans, giving mothers local access to the first food support is critical to improving the health of all infants. And, just as the food movement has been forced to recognize the absurdity of telling people to “eat well and exercise” without considering if there is actually any healthy food nearby or a safe place to exercise in their community, the breastfeeding movement too must move from overly simplistic messaging and examining the context of a woman’s life and whether or not she has access to the resources and supportive environments needed to breastfeed successfully. By doing so we can create a generation of healthier infants who become healthier children and adults, raised with a reduced risk of asthma, upper respiratory infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, and childhood obesity—all critical benefits that breast milk provides.

While many people may assume that access is not an issue since a woman’s breasts are readily available, the sobering reality is that in the same way that our current food system has been overrun by corporate interests and mixed marketing messages, leaving consumers largely uninformed or confused as to how to eat well, mothers also find their biological norm suffocated by social, political and cultural influences and the deep-pocketed marketing behind the profit motive in formula feeding. To counteract these powerful and insidious influences, mothers need a supportive community—including support where she eats, plays, works and worships, as well as easy access to resources to successfully breastfeed. Without that kind of support, a woman’s breastfeeding experience becomes burdensome and seemingly impossible and it is severely compromised or never begins. Just as we would like to see everyone able to walk to a local grocer to access fresh fruits and vegetables, that is how easily women should be able to access first food support.

Instead, recent examinations of the landscape in several vulnerable communities in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi show extreme desert-like conditions. No breastfeeding support groups. A high percentage of doctors not offering lactation support referrals. Please watch this animated infographic that details some the extreme lacks found in far too many communities across this country and the impact on babies:

And while a desert may be a thriving ecosystem, I use the term in recognition of the severe sense of “lack” present in these communities. A desert lacks rain, and has extremely limited vegetation and food options. I use the term in acknowledgement that in first food deserts, infants are limited, at times stunted, and facing systemic barriers to their fullest potential. In fact, some of these desert-areas correlate to areas with the highest infant mortality rates. I use the term most significantly in its verb form as in “to abandon, to withdraw from without intent to return.” In this understanding of the word desert, we see an important dimension that has been missing from the breastfeeding conversation. That is, for a woman to successfully breastfeed we must also and perhaps first, address the systemic failures and the “lack” in her community.

In order to address these, we need a unique understanding of that community—the cultural nuances, the sentiment of residents and the sociocultural influences. These are often more powerful deciding factors for infant feeding choices over the glossy pamphlets and ongoing discussions on the proven health benefits of breastfeeding. One size fits all interventions won’t work in these areas. The good news is, we can transform the first food experience for mothers and babies and eradicate any “deserts” of support and turn them into First Food Friendly communities. And it doesn’t require 25,000 square foot structures or overpriced quinoa. It will require a new way of understanding community influences and engaging everyone in the community from faith-based organizations and child-care facilities to restaurants, local businesses, school boards and youth sports clubs. It will take new messaging that holds the community jointly responsible for the health of its youngest residents and not leaving it solely on a mother’s shoulders to feed her infant well. But it can be done. One community at a time. Please take a few minutes to learn more at www.befirstfoodfriendly.org.

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and a nationally recognized commentator and consultant on breastfeeding and motherhood. Her next book, an in-depth examination of the modern American breastfeeding landscape, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2014. She is also the founder of MochaManual.com, an online parenting magazine, Black Breastfeeding 360, a multi-media content library, and is currently a Food and Community Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @iamKSealsAllers

Image via iStockphoto

  • Hillary Shaw

    Similarissues with over-sugary children’s food in UK, and poor access to fruit and veg in deprived areas, see http://www.fooddeserts.org

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