Walking through the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville, a pink-and-white sticker has been appearing on the windows of cafes, bodegas and laundromats, showcasing the international symbol for breastfeeding and the words, “Breastfeeding Welcome Here.”
“It may seem like a small gesture, but it’s a huge statement,” said Sharon Marshall-Taylor, program director for the Brooklyn Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone (BFEZ). “It signals to the community and all visitors that this is a place where women can feel free to breastfeed without any shame or fear or chastisement, that this is a community that supports and has made a conscious decision to normalize breastfeeding.”
A fledgling first food movement
Statistically, Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant are not the kind of places one would expect the first food movement to have a foothold. At six months, only 3 percent of Bedford-Stuyvesant mothers and 1 percent of mothers in Brownsville are exclusively breastfeeding, according to data from the Pediatric and Pregnancy Nutrition Surveillance Systems, cited in a BFEZ Neighborhood Report.
Studies have shown that babies who breastfeed or receive exclusive access to breast milk for the first six months of life have better health, educational and emotional outcomes – all of which gives children the best start to good health.
Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville are predominately communities of color, and neighborhoods that have historically not had access to resources. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, 77 percent of the population is Black. Compare that to Park Slope, one of the more affluent Brooklyn neighborhoods only 3 miles away, where 76 percent of the population is white and the annual median income is upwards of $126,000. In 2013, 61.7 percent of infants in Park Slope were exclusively breastfed during the first five days of life, according to data from the New York City Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.
“In Park Slope, I can trip over a doula, a Certified Lactation Consultant and people who do all sorts of things for families in that early stage – but here, not so much,” Marshall-Taylor said.
Despite these realities, breastfeeding is a growing norm in Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and BFEZ is playing a starring role.
Housed within the Brooklyn District Public Health office of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Health Equity and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, BFEZ is devoted to improving community conditions so mothers can receive breastfeeding support and access health resources.
Taking a rights-based neighborhood approach
BFEZ uses what they call a “rights-based neighborhood approach,” which focuses on neighborhood support systems to help mothers tackle challenges they may face when deciding to breastfeed.
“We understand a mother does not make the decision to breastfeed in a vacuum,” Marshall-Taylor said. “It truly isn’t a choice if you don’t acknowledge and address the challenges that communities face in making a health decision.”
Barriers to breastfeeding success include unstable housing, hospitals that administer formula over a mother’s wishes to breastfeed and local workplaces that do not provide adequate places to pump. Other challenges include family and friends who may believe formula-feeding is best.
Marshall-Taylor spent most of her life right outside the “border” of Brownsville, and says she faced stigma as a first-time breastfeeding mom. Her mother found it embarrassing when she breastfed, thinking only poor women nursed their babies.
“I didn’t want to have my struggles be a similar struggle for someone else – that’s why I do this work today,” Marshall-Taylor said.
Everyone has a role to play
A part of BFEZ’s work focuses on “capacity building” to equip the Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods with tools to address obstacles to breastfeeding success. BFEZ provides services, such as local lactation support, family education and workplace rights coaching, delivered by people in the community.
BFEZ offers community residents classes to become doulas and lactation consultants, so they can provide culturally-relevant breastfeeding advice to mothers in their neighborhood. These classes not only teach critical skills for supporting mothers, but also provide an occupation, which they can use to lift themselves up economically.
The initiative also conducts trainings for faith leaders, public housing residents and fathers, who are often left out of feeding decisions. BFEZ believes father engagement is necessary for improving breastfeeding success because they can offer substantial support to mothers. So far, BFEZ has trained 196 community members with 175 hours of breastfeeding, economic development and advocacy training.
Breastfeeding success is everyone’s responsibility
In the two years BFEZ has been operating, exclusive breastfeeding at birth has increased from 32 to 35 percent. A continued increase in rates of exclusive breastfeeding will only happen with increased community engagement.
“I don’t want to be the epicenter of the answer,” Marshall-Taylor said. For her, success is really about true community ownership. “It’s important we don’t always see ourselves as the experts; that we’re learning from the community and sitting at their table.”