Erica Morrell to Speak about First Food Justice Nov. 7 at UVM

By Allison Spain 

Erica Morrell, PhD, a Mellon C3 Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology at Middlebury College, will speak at UVM on Nov. 7 about “Knowledge, Power, and the Politics of First Food Justice.” 

erica morrell

In her talk, Erica will draw on her ethnographic research with La Leche League, the Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition, and the African American Breastfeeding Network to explore how knowledge and power function together to shape injustice and justice in America. She will connect these three groups’ work explicitly to food systems and public health initiatives, offering insights for improving food and medical practices to advance equity for all.

We talked to Erica about her background, research, and the barriers to accessing first foods.

How did you come to study food, and how did you weave together your interest in food through your background in sociology and public policy?

I grew up in rural New Hampshire, and was always active outdoors, cared about the environment, and loved gardening and food. My mother was a refugee from a formerly communist country, and my father was very politically active—particularly in regards to the Vietnam War—so I was raised thinking about social justice.

When I went to college, I found that sociology helped me to understand why injustices occur and how to change these through policy. At the time, I also began to learn more about genetically modified foods and protests against these in India and other countries. I realized that food was the overlap between my passion for the environment and interest in social justice and policy.

Can you tell us about your book, First Food Justice, and what compelled you to research this topic?

As I was conducting research for my dissertation in Detroit, a predominantly African-American city, I was learning about food justice issues occurring in the city around race and class. I came across a line about breastfeeding and formula in the City of Detroit Policy on Food Security. I had never thought much about “first foods” —breastmilk, formula—previously, but someone on the Detroit Food Policy Council was thinking about this. I also noticed an announcement for a meeting of the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association in the Council’s newsletter. When I tried to find some background research on why these groups are emerging, I realized few other people in academia are talking about this and why breastfeeding support groups are needed.

Over time, I learned about the dozens of breastfeeding support groups created by women of color for women of color, such as the Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition and the African American Breastfeeding Network. This is a huge arena of social justice activism, and this became the topic of my post-doc research. My book, First Food Justice, is currently under review and will hopefully be published in 2020.

What are the barriers you have found in access to first foods?

There are an unbelievable number of barriers in terms of access to first foods ranging from employer leave policies to daycare centers that won’t handle expressed breastmilk. In addition, the United States is the one country that has not signed on to an international marketing protocol to regulate the marketing of formula. We allow ingredients in formula manufactured here that countries in the European Union do not.

Many of these issues stem from the privilege of certain knowledge, and as a society we perpetuate racial and gender disparities through practices related to the dissemination of this knowledge and with respect to infant feeding. These breastfeeding support groups are rebuilding other forms of knowledge as a form of resistance to these dominant intellectual dynamics. I think this encourages us to look at how knowledge itself can create or dismantle injustice, which is an important framework to understand a lot of additional issues in our society today.

The talk will be Nov. 7 at 4:15 p.m. in Terrill 108 at UVM. 

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-Allison Spain is a Food Systems Graduate Program Coordinator at UVM. 

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