Food is love, food is everything

At the 2017 Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition conference and annual meeting, Camie Jae Goldhammer, MSW, LICSW, IBCLC delivered powerful, poignant, and straightforward presentations on encouraging and supporting Native mothers who breastfeed; historical trauma; and, a concept new to me, food sovereignty. (You can see her presentation “Breastfeeding is Food Sovereignty” and supporting documents here.) Not every conference is so full of new and challenging information, and delivered with humor and wisdom as well.

Jane and Xo eating abuela's grilled cheese.
My new favorite show obsession is Jane the Virgin. Here abuela has made newly-broken-up Jane and Xo grilled cheese sandwiches and, for a little while, all is right with the world.

One of the things I do for people to show that I care is feed them. I guess you could say that even my career is, at its root, about feeding people. More eloquent people than I have waxed poetic about the connections between food, traditions, soul, family, and love, so I’ll refrain. Realizing that the topic of food sovereignty—and as Camie highlighted, first foods—was connected to breastfeeding occurred to me as I was preparing a meal for my family.

Connecting food sovereignty and breastfeeding

Until this conference, I had no clue about the international movement focused on food sovereignty. The first global forum on food sovereignty took place in Mali in 2007. The resulting Declaration of Nyéléni defines foods sovereignty as:

…the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

There are six pillars of food sovereignty, and breastfeeding fits into each pillar easily.

Focuses on food for people: Food sovereignty puts the right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for all at the center of food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries policies.

Every human culture breastfeeds. It is the original first food. We would not be the complex beings we are today without this food that has evolved right alongside us. Breastfeeding must be considered as part of food policies, and in many places—including the developed nations where some consider the benefits of breastfeeding to be overblown—it is not sufficient or healthy.

Values food providers: Food sovereignty values all those who grow, harvest and process food, including women, family farmers, herders, fisherpeople, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples, and agricultural, migrant and fisheries workers. 

We need to value the people who create our food; in the context of childbearing, it’s often mothers. The people who are tasked with raising a new, healthy generation that succeeds in producing its own offspring need to be valued. One thing that devalues a parent is the idea that the milk they produce is not important and easily replaced. Another is failing to provide support for the other aspects of their lives as well (shelter, nutrition, mental health needs, and so on).

Localizes food systems: Food sovereignty brings food providers and consumers closer together so they can make joint decisions on food issues that benefit and protect all.

Can you think of a more localized food system than a breast and a baby’s mouth? (Pro tip: Bringing parent—a.k.a. the food provider—and baby—a.k.a. the consumer—closer together often helps immensely with latch pain, milk transfer, and milk supply!) Breastfeeding, too, should involve joint decisions that benefit and protect all; it is not just about “parent” or “baby.” They are a single unit existing in a complex culture.

Puts control locally: Food sovereignty respects the right of food providers to have control over their land, seeds and water and rejects the privatization of natural resources.

Food providers—parents—have control over their bodies. Parents have choices about how they will feed their babies. Their decisions must be respected.

Builds knowledge and skills: Food sovereignty values the sharing of local knowledge and skills that have been passed down over generations for sustainable food production free from technologies that undermine health and well-being.

Sharing knowledge and skills that has been passed down over generations. Sometimes, in some places, this knowledge skips one or more generation; in the case of indigenous women, it is often upwards of six or more generations that have lost the knowledge of breastfeeding due to endeavors such as Indian boarding schools, which sought to destroy native culture. La Leche League was founded to pass this knowledge along after its founders realized that breastfeeding rates were drastically decreasing. Peer support and increasing the numbers of lactation professionals of color are important cornerstones of increasing breastfeeding rates, especially in communities that suffer from the largest health disparities.

Works with nature: Food sovereignty focuses on production and harvesting methods that maximize the contribution of ecosystems, avoid costly and toxic inputs and improve the resiliency of local food systems in the face of climate change.

Breastfeeding minimizes environmental impact. The resources (land, animals, equipment, energy, factories, transport, packaging, for a few) involved in manufacturing formula are many. Now, it is true that humans need to eat to produce milk; there are ways to minimize the impact your diet has on the environment and the consumption of traditional, local foods can be a part of that. It’s equally important to ensure that the available breastmilk substitutes are safe, nutritious, and accessible, even if our food system gets borked.

Food is love; food is everything

Food—from our first taste of breastmilk to our last bites—nourishes our bodies, hearts, souls, communities, and cultures. Food feeds your belly and your connections with others. Food can be a source of embarrassment and exclusion while also connecting us to traditions and places. We may not always love what are moms put in our lunches, but each PB&J or onigiri is a gesture of caring.

Camie shared a quote from this Facebook post at the end of one of her talks, and it’s worth resharing in its entirety.