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Healthy food access includes first foods

By Kibibi Blount-Dorn
Special to the Michigan Citizen

An amazing thing has happened to me since my second son was born nearly one year ago. When we are in public places like the library or the grocery store and I need to feed him, I have gotten resounding messages of support and encouragement from virtual strangers — many of them also mothers, but some of them are not. I cannot express how reaffirming this encouragement is, because breastfeeding is hard. Women who make a commitment to breastfeeding are often armed with lots of resources about the benefits for baby and mother.

The benefits far outweigh the challenges, but the first time around we often don’t realize how hard it will be. Breastfeeding has not been the norm in American society for the past century, and we have had to reinvent the support systems that sustained breastfeeding for millennia before artificial formula feeding became accepted as a preference.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control reported that although the number of infants who were breastfed at birth had risen to 77% percent only 49 percent of infants were still breastfed at six months (Breastfeeding Report Card: United States-2013).

For me, the ability to continue to breastfeed my son requires not only encouragement from supportive strangers, but also support from my family, birth and lactation professionals, peers and employers. To say nothing of the education, awareness and role-modeling I received before I even became pregnant. All this thought and effort went into feeding my son months and years before other foods ever touched his lips. This is why food system advocates are now turning their attention to the importance of first foods, breast milk, to a healthy food system.

Breastfeeding benefits mothers and babies. Babies receive the best nutrition from breast milk, and they get the most benefits if they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. But there are many benefits to breastfeeding in addition to nutrition.

Babies who are breastfed have stronger immune systems, fewer ear and gastrointestinal infections, and lower risk of diabetes, obesity, allergies, asthma and childhood cancers. Premature babies who receive breast milk experience lower infant mortality rates. Mothers who breastfeed their babies have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancers, osteoporosis, and diabetes.

Breastfeeding also helps mothers bond with their babies, lose weight and get more sleep. In addition, breastfeeding saves money and produces no waste compared to feeding formula to babies.

The United States has the lowest rates of breastfeeding among industrialized nations. This is attributed to lack of paid maternity and paternity leave, lack of support for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, and lack of cultural acceptance of breastfeeding.

The rates and durations of breastfeeding are even lower for African American families resulting in higher infant mortality rates, higher rates of childhood illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, and greater rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. All of these health outcomes can be improved by greater rates and duration of breastfeeding for infants. But African American communities have access to fewer resources and less support and advocacy for breastfeeding than the wider community.

Food system advocates must become more involved in advocating for the needs of infants and breastfeeding mothers.

A healthy food system must provide a sustainable food source and proper nutrition for all members of the community, including infants. For infants, this means ensuring access to a healthy supply of breast milk. Food system advocates are beginning to think about how the health of the food system affects the milk that mothers produce for their babies. Mothers need diets that are rich in nutrients, free of harmful chemicals, local, accessible and affordable to produce the best breast milk. One of the ways we can protect mothers’ milk is to ensure our food system is healthy, sustainable and clean. Because breast milk is the ideal first food for babies, we need to protect it from pesticides, antibiotics and other harmful chemicals that contaminate our food system.

We must also support mothers as a community by providing the resources, and advocacy necessary to develop a culture of breastfeeding in African American communities.

One organization in Detroit has made this its mission. The Black Mother’s Breastfeeding Association seeks to reduce racial inequities in breastfeeding support for African Americans by building foundational networks of support and strengthening systems to overcome historical, societal and social barriers to breastfeeding success. They are doing this by organizing Black Mothers Breastfeeding Clubs, and training breastfeeding peer counselors and community doulas to support to families of young babies.

Find more information on their website, www.blackmothersbreastfeeding.org.

Kibibi Blount-Dorn is program manager at the Detroit Food Policy Council. She can be reached at kibibi.dfpc@gmail.com, for more information visit www.detroitfoodpc.org

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