Family Matters

Can a Formula Company Really Promote Breast-Feeding and Fight Child Obesity?

Breast-feeding advocates say the partnership between Newark, N.J., and Nestle — a major baby formula maker — to reduce childhood obesity and promote breast-feeding is inappropriate, like "R.J. Reynolds sponsoring an exercise program."

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Newark’s Corey Booker is a darling among U.S. mayors. He made headlines in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to his New Jersey city’s struggling school system because Booker had impressed him. Earlier this month, Booker dashed into a burning building to save a neighbor. But the mayor’s on the outs now with breast-feeding advocates, who are none too pleased with a recently announced partnership between Newark and the Nestle Corporation to tackle childhood obesity.

On its face, the project sounds great: a global food powerhouse giving a struggling city’s grassroots municipal group, Newark Now, $100,000 to decrease the community’s outsize rate of childhood obesity — 27% among children ages 3 to 5, compared to 10% nationally.

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“I am so excited to announce that Nestle is becoming our newest supporter of ‘Let’s Move! Newark,'” Booker said in a press release announcing the partnership, which is a pilot program for Nestle. “Through this new initiative, Nestle and Newark Now will empower our city’s grandparents, parents and caregivers on how they can improve the nutrition of their young children by promoting small dietary changes and healthy activity.”

But lactation experts are calling foul, concerned that Nestle — a major manufacturer of Gerber-brand infant formula — will surreptitiously promote its own product rather than championing breast-feeding, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the U.S. Surgeon General for all babies. The AAP advises mothers to breast-feed exclusively for at least six months and to continue breast-feeding for a year; various studies have found links between breast-feeding and decreased rates of obesity.

“Nestle sponsoring an anti-obesity program is like R.J. Reynolds sponsoring an exercise program — absurd and inappropriate,” says Maria Parlapiano, a nurse and lactation consultant in Chatham, N.J., which is 15 minutes from Newark.

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Parlapiano is leading the charge to get Newark to change its mind. She’s written letters to Booker, to N.J. Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd, even to Michelle Obama, who has spearheaded the Let’s Move! campaign to slim down U.S. kids. “I figured Mayor Booker probably doesn’t realize what Nestle’s doing, being a single guy and all,” says Parlapiano, who offers lactation services and new mother support programs. A petition she started on called “Stop Newark/Nestle Now!” has attracted more than 1,800 signers.

Nestle, for its part, says it’s simply interested in “the healthy development of young children,” according to Christina Lawrence, head of corporate affairs for Nestle Infant Nutrition. Many topics will be covered in the program, among them the importance of breast-feeding, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, healthy snacking, dealing with a fussy eater, portion control and physical activity. “The program for the Newark families is strictly evidence-based, which is why breast-feeding is prominent, and why it is focused on the development of healthy eating habits of families,” wrote Lawrence in an email. “The program is unbranded and no specific products will be showcased, provided or endorsed as part of it.”

Newark Now did not respond to requests for comment, and Booker hasn’t replied to Parlapiano’s letters. But she did manage to get Booker to listen to her on his radio program, where she told him of her disappointment. His response, according to Parlapiano: no strings are attached to the six-figure check.

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The situation is even raising eyebrows overseas, where U.K.-based Baby Milk Action, a nonprofit thatc ampaigns for baby-food companies to abide by international marketing standards, has also written to Booker. And back stateside, breast-feeding advocacy group Best for Babes says the partnership makes no sense. “It’s just a complete conflict of interest,” says co-founder Bettina Forbes. “This should not be sponsored by a company that has a vested interest in products that increase the risks of obesity for children.”

Meanwhile, Parlapiano is stepping up her efforts to get Newark to reconsider in the waning days before the program’s slated May kick-off. Based on past responses, she’s not overly optimistic. But she’s on a mission. “This is a pilot program,” she says, “and if we can stop them here, we can stop them from doing this all over the country.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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