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Feed Each Other

by Miriam Axel-Lute on July 5, 2012

I am as delighted as the next pragmatist who hopes we eventually get to true national healthcare that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. I think everyone should pause and read some of the stories about what happens when people are denied coverage due to preexisting conditions, dropped for no reason, or die, literally, while lost in the bureaucratic denials of a bloated, inefficient private healthcare system. To have struck any blow at changing what we have is a really big deal.

And then perhaps, consider this: according to a 2002 study, only 10 percent of premature deaths are attributable to medical care, or lack thereof. Only 30 percent are attributable to genetics. The rest are laid at the feet of a complex mix of environment—social and physical—and behavior. This is why large health-focused philanthropies like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have started funding affordable housing, community planning, environmental justice, violence prevention, and other things that don’t happen in doctor’s offices.

There are a lot of conclusions you can draw from those facts, and a lot of directions you can head. But because it’s my birthday this week, I want to pick one that is both dear to my heart and not depressing.

I’m talking about something as seemingly mundane as a organizing a list of people to bring meals to parents with new babies. The idea is to break down a bit of that nuclear family isolation we’ve so recently invented and acknowledge that the transition to new parenthood, or a larger family, is often hard and overwhelming and unpredictable, and at the very least tiring. Sharing food is an ancient, deeply rooted way of caring for each other.

The idea that this is something everyone should have when they have a new baby was introduced to us by the wonderful, wise folks at Albany’s Family Life Center when we were expecting our first child.

From long experience, they gave us pointers: Someone other than the parents gathers names, gets the pertinent details on diet and timing from the family (including a notification of when the baby actually comes), and oversees communication. Expecting to be allowed to visit and meet the baby when you bring food is a no-no. Though short visits often happen, the point is to unobtrusively help, not get a baby fix.

It sounded great, but we didn’t really end up making it happen. It’s so hard to ask for things, and we didn’t know what was coming. We had an easy birth and early infancy by all accounts, and yet it was still a twilight zone. I was so grateful to the friends who did just spontaneously bring us meals that I remember exactly what they brought years later because they made me so happy.

With our second child, a friend organized a meal list for us. We were humbled and awed by the number of people who promised to bring us meals, and a little sheepish, especially after the birth went quickly and well. “We got this,” I thought on that first day. “Maybe all these folks should be helping someone else.” And then we discovered our new baby wasn’t nursing right or gaining weight and we were plunged into a round-the-clock haze of supplementation, donated breast milk, visits to nearly a dozen medical professionals, wee-hours pumping, etc.

We were the lucky ones—we had health insurance, the resources to pay for some care not covered, flexible jobs, and extra adults at home—and she came through not only healthy and happy but successfully breastfeeding. But it took months, and at the beginning, those dinners arriving for us felt like a godsend every time. That community support meant as much to the health of my kid and her parents in its own way as the involvement of the medical world did.

Which means, not surprisingly, we became a bit evangelical about meal lists. I have had more than one first conversation with an awesome friend of a friend upon bringing a meal. I once stopped a pregnant neighbor on the street who I only kinda sorta knew and insisted that I organize a meal list for her. She has gone on to do it for others. And we know many others who have also, not necessarily through us, adopted the meal list as a default response to a new arrival, as expected as a baby shower. (MealTrain.com lowers the activation energy too, taking some of the reminder giving and date-juggling work out of being an organizer.)

New baby meal lists don’t substitute for every family having good, experienced pre and post natal care. They are an admittedly little thing. But they give me hope, because they represent such a tangible, practical step toward a better, truly healthier world.