The Hulu documentary Aftershock reignited the conversation around the maternal healthcare crisis for Black women in the United States. Indeed, the statistics are dire—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the maternal mortality rate for Black women is almost three times higher than that of their white counterparts.
While much of the conversation stemming from this issue has revolved around racism and inadequate healthcare, it is important to also note that nutrition can also be a central determining factor during pregnancy and afterward for both mother and child. Data from the United Nations confirms that “[m]aternal malnutrition is not only associated with malnutrition in a developing fetus, it is also directly associated with the ill-health, and possible death, of the mother.” Worldwide, poor nutrition is the cause of 20 percent of maternal deaths every year.
Heather Taylor is the Managing Director of Bread for the World, which she describes as “a faith-based, advocacy organization that mobilizes community groups and congregations to advocate before members of Congress on policies that address U.S. hunger and hunger around the world.”
Taylor sat down with ESSENCE to discuss her work at Bread For the World in advocating for the first 1,000 days of a woman’s pregnancy to post-childbirth by promoting policies to reduce maternal and infant mortality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: How did you get involved in this space and doing this work?
For me, faith and justice are essential. I grew up and experienced child poverty myself, being raised by a single mother who worked the entire time she was raising me, but yet didn’t [earn] a living wage. There were times when my mother had to rely on programs like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and WIC [Women, Infants, and Children] herself. It was important for me to spend my livelihood being able to articulate the stories of people like my mother, who have similar experiences that are caught in stereotypes and myths about who they are and how they live their lives. I want to try and serve as a bridge to ensure that families can share their experiences so that we can create better policies.
This is the source of my motivation because I know personally how these programs can benefit. Oftentimes, women, and Black women in particular, are cast off as welfare queens, and the holistic view of who and what their needs are, and their desire to come up out of poverty, are not shared in the best manner possible. In this role, I have the opportunity to speak to individuals like yourself to talk about programs that really make a difference, and to really give a holistic view of wonderful, hardworking, beautiful women who have the right to a flourishing life.
ESSENCE: Why is nutrition is so important for maternal health?
It’s important because it literally has the ability to save the life of the mother and the child. Also, it is the essential factor to ensure the mental, physical, and emotional development of every child. It will make a critical difference in their ability to learn, and statistics show that the ability of a child to be a productive citizen, to have gainful employment, to excel in education is directly tied to the nutrition that they receive within the first 1000 days.
ESSENCE: Can you tell me more about the first 1000 days campaign?
The reason for this name is because of the 1000-day period from the time that a mother gives birth to her child’s second birthday. This is the absolute, most critical period for both child and maternal health when it comes to nutrition, to the extent that we can address child health and maternal health during this period, it really helps to reduce maternal deaths as well as ensure the overall health of her child.
WIC is one of the most essential programs that we focus on, and the legislation that governs this program is up to be reauthorized in 2023. We want to make sure that there are provisions within the legislation to ensure that the WIC program is culturally sensitive, that it’s culturally appropriate*, and ensure that the government continues to invest in this program. It is a proven fact that for every two to four dollars that is invested in the WIC program results in overall savings for healthcare and social security of birth mothers, which we know has a profound impact on Black mothers in particular.
ESSENCE: Can you expand on why the WIC program is so helpful for Black women? And, what can people do to make sure it properly reauthorized in 2023?
Certainly, because it provides access to things like baby formula, to nutrition programs and education that women need to ensure that they have the best health possible to come to full term and that their child is able to live. There is a woman by the name of Rose with whom we worked, and within the first few months of her pregnancy, she learned that there was fluid around her child’s brain and that her child was not expected to live more than a year after giving birth. But, because of the education, not only the nutrition, that she received through the WIC program, but because of the education and certain concrete steps that she was able to take by accessing this program, it was a contributing factor to ensuring the health of her child who is now happy and healthy and living. So, it’s a compound effect. It’s not only access to actual supplements, but the education that is required for many women to make choices within their lives, they can better their health overall.
People should contact and urge their U.S. representatives in the House to pass the bill and the Senate to introduce their version of the bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs.
*legislation that would alleviate (or in some cases worsen) food insecurity and economic advancement for Black and Brown communities. (Racial wealth gap, redlining, prison pipeline system, etc).