Why Transforming First Food Deserts to First Food Friendly Communities Matters

By Kimberly Seals Allers

In 2006, Mari Gallagher used the concept of a “food desert” to transform how we think about food access. Gallagher’s work studying access to supermarkets in Detroit and the health implications thereof, sparked the slow ascent of the term “food desert” into the American vernacular.  In 2012, the First Lady has made elimination of food deserts an anchor element of her broader “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.

And while the term “desert” has come under some criticism since a desert is in fact a thriving ecosystem, we 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.  We use the term in acknowledgement that in first food deserts, infants are limited, at times stunted, and facing systemic barriers to their fullest potential.  Furthermore, we use the term most significantly in its verb form as in “to abandon; to withdraw from without intent to return,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. In this understanding of the word, we see an important dimension, heretofore 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.

Our initial exploration of key cities in states with low breastfeeding rates, specifically Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana, uncovered consistent similarities in uneven opportunities, risks, resources, and community sentiment, which can be viewed as key identifying factors in communities with low breastfeeding rates.  This work, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, makes a significant contribution to the breastfeeding landscape by demonstrating that where you live makes a considerable difference in your likelihood to breastfeed and your likelihood and ability to continue breastfeeding. This is noteworthy, because previous efforts at increasing breastfeeding rates particularly among low-income and African American women, have primarily focused on messaging. That is, “what” is being said to these women, with little understanding of their community environment, and minimal consideration to the “where” and the impact of “place” as a determinant of breastfeeding success. This focus on messaging has had some success in increasing initiation rates but negligible success at increasing duration—which is where the preventative medicine of breast milk really take hold.

The findings of this exploratory pilot project suggest that there are common defining elements in first food deserts, some concrete some nuanced, all of which show that communities where breastfeeding is stunted, have patterns and commonalities. By addressing, acknowledging and naming these “deserts” we can better address the infant health and wellness challenges also common in these communities.  By clarifying the “lacks” in these neighborhoods, we can better fill in the gaps.