'First Food' Justice: Racial Disparities in Infant Feeding as Food Oppression
35 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2015 Last revised: 30 Jul 2015
Date Written: May 1, 2015
In 1997, Tabitha Walrond lost her seven week old son Tyler to malnutrition due to inadequate breast milk. When similar tragedies struck white mothers around the country, they led to legal reforms increasing minimum hospital stays and other attempts to improve services to new mothers and infants. In the case of Tabitha, a 19 year old black woman from the Bronx, the prosecution charged her with second degree manslaughter. Portraying Tabitha as a cold, uncaring woman that deliberately starved Tyler to exact revenge on his father, who had left her for another woman, both the prosecution and the media demonized Tabitha. In doing so, they relied on a stereotype of black women as bad mothers that originated in slavery to justify the cruel practice of wrenching black women away from their infants to serve as wet nurses for white babies. In the modern era, this stereotype supports a breastfeeding policy framework comprised of laws and policies that promote formula use and discourage breastfeeding. This framework leads to black women having the lowest breastfeeding rates and approximately double the infant mortality rates of other racial groups. This Article argues that the present breastfeeding policy framework is a manifestation of food oppression, which is institutional, systemic, food-related action or policy that physically debilitates a socially subordinated group. Breastfeeding is a food justice issue involving our first, and perhaps most important, food. This Article establishes that disparate breastfeeding rates and related health disparities arise from food oppression and that structural reform and new racial and social paradigms are necessary to reduce or eliminate these disparities.
Keywords: food oppression, food justice, food policy, critical race theory, health disparities, health policy, breastfeeding
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