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COVID-19 Exposes the Racist Side of Breastfeeding

“Four Little Babies.” Pet Milk, “Four Little Babies Become Four Little Ladies,” advertisement, Pittsburgh Courier, October 22, 1949, 5. Public Domain.

May 11 2020

Posted In:

Dialogue, Faculty, Students

Understanding the history of formula and Black motherhood


Breastfeeding is one of the defining acts of motherhood—and it is also one of the most controversial. Popular wisdom about its benefits differs drastically when mom is Black from when she is White. These differences represent a longstanding racial gap in breastfeeding rates that has become even more dangerous in the time of Covid-19.

A long history of discouraging Black women from breastfeeding has made their infants more vulnerable to the current formula shortage.

Formula flew off the shelves in the first few days of the pandemic due to panic buying and hoarding. Delays in freight transportation and formula producers’ lack of supply to keep up with increased demand compounded the problem. Now, when retailers restock, families buy more than they need, leaving nothing for those who come after them.

The situation is even worse for parents who get their formula through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food supplement program, where Black women are overrepresented. WIC only allows participants to purchase a certain brand. If that one is not available, they are out of luck. Many program participants lack the transportation, resources, and time to shop at multiple locations. Families with limited or no access to good drinking water may also struggle now to find bottled water to mix with formula in local stores.

When there is no formula, all the options look bad. Watering down formula runs the risk of malnutrition. Some mothers can start or resume breastfeeding past the infant stage but not everyone, especially without help. Cow’s milk is a potential substitute, but it has also all but disappeared from shelves. Breastmilk sharing through informal networks or milk banks is another possibility but may be risky or expensive. Babies cannot digest solid foods until they are several months old.

A long history of discouraging Black women from breastfeeding has made their infants more vulnerable to the current formula shortage. The traditional image of a breastfeeding mother is a serene White woman gazing adoringly at her baby. Images of Black women breastfeeding appear mostly in National Geographic and formula ads. This is no accident.

Society has always cast Black mothers as cold and uncaring for profit. Slave owners demonized Black mothers to justify the cruel separation of Black women from their children. They stole enslaved women’s breast milk for White babies, spreading lies that Black mothers were “Mammies” who naturally loved White children but not their own. The bad Black mother myth was born.

Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race, and Injustice
In Skimmed», Andrea Freeman tells the riveting story of the Fultz quadruplets while uncovering how feeding America's youngest citizens is awash in social, legal, and cultural inequalities.
This myth continued past slavery when laws restricted Black women to domestic labor. They worked as wet nurses and caregivers for White children to earn enough money to support their own. Society said that Black women should work while White women should stay at home.

Few recall today that Welfare first developed as a way to support widowed White mothers. When Black and brown women began to benefit from the program, popular attitudes toward it changed. It began to look more like a windfall for the undeserving than a government responsibility. Now, politicians use the ultimate bad Black mother, the Welfare Queen, to rally support for Welfare cuts.

When formula first became widely available as part of pediatricians’ efforts to medicalize motherhood, working Black women needed it the most. But formula companies refused to market to them. Corporations feared that using Black models would alienate White consumers. But, in 1946, an irresistible opportunity came along. Annie Mae Fultz, a Black, Cherokee woman from Reidsville, North Carolina, gave birth to the first recorded identical Black quadruplets. Her adorable daughters became instant celebrities.

Their White doctor, Fred Klenner, a Hitler enthusiast, stole the privilege of naming the girls from Annie Mae and her tenant farmer husband Pete, giving them all the first name Mary then the names of his wife, mother, aunt and great-aunt. Next, Klenner opened a bidding war among formula companies to become the girls’ corporate godfather. 

The winner, Pet Milk company, launched the first formula campaign aimed at Black mothers. Before then, corporations only marketed alcohol, cigarettes, and beauty products to Black consumers. The campaign was a huge success, making millions for Pet Milk. In exchange, the company built a house for the Fultz family on hilly, barren land. Fred Klenner installed a large window in the nursery where visitors could come and pay to look at the girls on weekends, like a human zoo.

Klenner kept tight control over the sisters, isolating them from their seven brothers and sisters and, later, their parents. When the girls turned six, Klenner and Pet Milk persuaded a judge to let the nurse that Klenner chose for them become their guardian. The sisters never lived with their family again. Although their lives looked glamorous from the outside, they lived their entire lives in poverty. By age forty-five, all four sisters had breast cancer.

The ‘Famous Fultz Quads’ campaign opened the door to misleading, race-targeted marketing that claimed formula was the same or better than breastfeeding. This marketing contributed to the wealth of structural legal, political, and social factors that make breastfeeding more difficult for Black women. The resulting racial gap in breastfeeding rates is having a particularly devastating impact now.

This Mother’s Day, more Black women had to worry about feeding their babies because of social and legal inequities tracing back to slavery. This is the time to enact laws and policies, like eliminating welfare work requirements and better protection against nursing mothers at work, to support Black mothers who want to breastfeed. It is also time to tell a new story about Black motherhood.

Start reading Skimmed »

Andrea Freeman is Associate Professor at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law. Freeman writes and researches at the intersection of critical race theory and issues of food policy, health, and consumer credit. She is the pioneer of the theory of "food oppression," which examines how partnerships between the government and corporations lead to racial and gender health disparities. Her work has been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Salon, The Washington Post, The Conversation, Pacific Standard, and more.