Once again, the Tea Party heavyweights are using food to cast First Lady Michelle Obama as a proponent for an all-controlling nanny state. Last month, the first lady’s efforts to rein in the junk-food industry drew the ire of right-wing scolds. More recently, her promotion of breast-feeding, particularly among African-American women, drew controversy. At around the same time, the Internal Revenue Service announced that breast pumps would be eligible for tax breaks.
Strangely enough, some conservatives leapt to attack the simple notion of encouraging breast-feeding — which has been shown in many studies to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. Tea Party star and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) accused the first lady of pushing a leftist agenda intent on making “government the answer to everything.” On Laura Ingram’s radio show last week, Bachmann said: “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump … You want to talk about nanny state, I think we just got a new definition.”
Bachmann’s claim that the government is buying breast pumps is nonsense. The IRS simply announced it would allow people to deduct breast-feeding expenses from their taxes. And since breast pumps can be costly (I found them online in the range of $75 to $350), the tax break would be a relief to many working mothers. But for Bachmann and her ilk, any government intervention to support healthier options is fodder for harsh criticism.
Last month, I wrote about America’s vexed relationship with fast food and Sarah Palin’s attempts to discredit the work Obama is doing with her Let’s Move campaign. Last year on the Laura Ingram show, Palin came out swinging against the first lady saying, “Instead of a government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us according to some politician or politician’s wife priorities, just leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights.”
Palin made a contentious remark of her own about Obama’s breast-feeding statements, saying, “No wonder Michelle Obama’s telling everybody, ‘you’d better breast-feed your baby.’ Yeah, you’d better, because the price of milk is so high right now!”
It’s unclear why Bachmann or Palin wouldn’t want to foster an environment that makes it easier for mothers to breast-feed their babies. Bachman’s implication that this is unpatriotic and an infringement on American rights is baffling given the fact that all politicians at least pay lip service to the importance of motherhood — to attack breast-feeding, as Bachmann and Palin have, is to attack healthy mothers and babies.
There are a host of studies to show just how important breast-feeding is. The Centers for Disease Control has an entire section on its website dedicated to explaining the benefits of breast-feeding. Just this past January, the surgeon general issued The Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding and lists a myriad of benefits when it comes to breast-feeding on her website. The benefits include: Protecting babies from infections and illnesses such as diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia; preventing the development of asthma; preventing obesity; reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome; and a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers in mothers.
These are substantial health benefits and they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all that breast-feeding does for both mother and baby. Obama’s focus is that nursing prevents obesity and diabetes because breast milk contains the protein adiponectin, which lowers blood sugar. Low levels of adiponectin are linked to obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, and heart disease. (For more detailed information on the benefits of breast-feeding I recommend Nina Planck’s book, Real Food for Mother and Baby.)
The surgeon general also lists the economic benefits of breast-feeding; something you’d think might pique Palin and Bachman’s interest. According to the website, a study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that if 90 percent of U.S. families followed guidelines to breast-feed exclusively for six months, the U.S. would save $13 billion annually in reduced medical and other costs. The site also says that for both employers and employees, better infant health means fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children, and higher productivity.
And finally, Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in the company’s employee maternity and lactation program. Add to this the fact that the federal government is one of the biggest buyers of baby formula through its nutritional programs for women and infant children, and as the New York Times article rightly points out, a tax break for breast-feeding could reduce government spending — something Bachmann and Palin both advocate.
While neither Bachmann nor Palin have come out against breast-feeding (Bachmann says she breast-fed her five children), to imply that Obama’s campaign to encourage women to nurse is somehow akin to a nanny state is harmful to the health of our nation’s babies and mothers. We currently face a national health crisis largely fueled by a toxic food supply that does not support easy access to healthy options. On the other hand, breast milk is the perfect food for newborns — and given the proper guidance and support, access is not a problem for most women.
Every politician should back an idea that makes breast-feeding easier and more affordable than it already is. According to the CDC, 75 percent of mothers in the U.S. start out breast-feeding but those rates fall to only 43 percent by six months and only 13 percent of babies are exclusively breast-fed. Among African-Americans, the rates are much lower — 58 percent of mothers start out breast-feeding but the rate falls to 28 percent by six months and only 8 percent are exclusively breast-fed.
One of the more startling statistics I’ve come across is the fact that one out of five 4-year-olds is obese and children of color are at higher risk. The magnitude of the health crisis we currently face is unprecedented and strong measures must be taken in order to reverse these trends. Michelle Obama is right to follow up on the surgeon general’s call for greater awareness on breast-feeding. Anything to help reduce the surging obesity rates in this country is a step in the right direction.
A version of this post first appeared on Civil Eats.