Une Vache à Lait: Milk Banks, Co-Operatives, and Corporations

I overheard a conversation today. I was sitting in the sweet little Le Marche St. George with my sweet little friend Le Jessa when two mothers came in. One had a babe in arms and the other had two kids under five.

"She had an undersupply issue," said one.
"Yeah, so that's what I'm saying. She just went to the milk bank." Said the other.
"I heard it's so expensive."

Nobody ever seems to like it when I butt in on their conversations so I just kept my questions -- and my excitement -- to myself (and Jessa). The thing is, I'd forgotten all about this little stream of alterna-parenting: not-for-profit human breast milk cooperatives.

It's no secret that many women in the West (15% of women who breastfeed) as well as a small percentage worldwide (less than 5%, more on this later) have difficulties producing enough milk for their babies. Any breastfeeding difficulty can be physically trying; this particular one has an intense emotional impact. Sarah, my co-blogger, wrote about some of these challenges (and her success!) in this post.

So what happens if you want to have an EBF (Exclusively Breast Fed) baby but your milk supply doesn't seem to be high enough? At first, mama and baby work on the problem themselves with more frequent nursing and maybe a Lactation Consultant's suggestions. But if baby isn't gaining weight or soiling enough diapers, it's time to supplement. Most mamas supplement with formula. Some are happy with this. But many aren't. Isn't there an alternative?

There are mamas with the opposite problem: oversupply. That was me for the first six months of Sweet Baby James' life. Milk, milk everywhere, and not a drop to drink (thirsty?...). Compared to undersupply it's a blessing. But it wasn't fun. I went through four pairs of the best (and most expensive) nursing pads every day. I shoved clean cloth diapers in my bra at night and soaked through them. I actually broke into tears one morning when I realized that no matter what I did, I was going to wake up with my pajamas plastered to my skin with sticky, smelly milk -- and I'd worn my last clean pajama top three nights ago.

The worst part was the run-off. I poured dozens of bottles of expressed milk down the drain and every time I did I felt a twinge of guilt: here I have so much while some have so little. I guess you could say I was the 1% of milk producers.

Thinking there must be some better way, I looked into donating to a milk bank. There are only a handful in the world. There is one in Canada -- it's in BC and if you want to donate you have to pay $ to ship your milk there. Glad to see we have a bank but I'm not in a position to pay to be generous these days.

There's also the International Breast Milk Project which pays for all shipping and has set up a free milk bank for orphaned babies in South Africa... Only problem is, they have also "partnered" with Prolacta Bioscience, a for-profit corporation that charges American parents big bucks to provide their premie babies with breast milk -- the same breast milk that has been donated by American women. Only 25% (10% if the amount received exceeds 400,000 oz.) of the milk donated actually gets to the bank in South Africa. The rest is sold for profit within America.

Prolacta 'invests' $1 per ounce they sell within America in humanitarian aid projects in South Africa. The fact that they can donate that much just shows just how valuable breast milk really is. Feeding a baby on milk bank milk costs about $100/day (EBF babies take in an average of 25 ounces/day). Way to be generous with the proceeds from sales of a material you acquired for free with sanctimonious preachings about helping the needy, Prolacta BioSCAMience.

So I did nothing, and bags of milk I had conscientiously stored in the freezer got chucked in the garbage when we moved. I'd done my research, but not very well. Because tonight I found this site, Milk Share, which hooks up donor and recipient families. Not a milk bank, not a big corporation (you can tell from Milk Share's ugly website -- Prolacta's is way sexier), though recipient families have to pay $20 to sign up. Just a little 'missed connections' messaging board for the lactationally yearning.

In fact, I could make some pretty good cash selling milk within the US through sites like this one, Only the Breast. I'll wait for my Green Card to come through first. But since it's only the state of California (where Prolacta is based...) that consumer-to-consumer sale is outright prohibited, we'd better move to New Jersey. You know, where they're more into this kind of thing.

The ickiness factor, however, kind of ramps up when I think of being paid for my milk. It's not that I'm against being paid for a product of my body (I worked damn hard in a lot of crappy jobs in my day -- what else is elbow grease but a bodily fluid?) but I'm a bit put off by the buyers. 48 of the 204 'Milk Wanted' ads on Only the Breast were posted by people who admit to being men.

Not that men can't be looking to buy breast milk for their babies. You just have to admit it's kind of unlikely. Take this guy whose ad claims a "low vitamin D level" for which he's willing to travel up to 75 miles to get FRESH breast milk. He says he found his vitamin D levels rose while "helping my wife with producing enough milk to feed our child" and he'd like to, you know, uh, get those levels up again.
HINT: Breast milk doesn't contain Vitamin D, that's why we Canadians have to give our babies Vitamin D drops.
HINT: People who do this don't have "a child," they have "a baby".
HINT: If you're a mom working on your milk supply, you're probably pumping a lot and letting the baby comfort nurse a lot, and not generally offering up your mammaries like an extra-handy Gatorade bottle to your thirsty, needs-to-get-out-in-the-sun-more husband.

Ladies, if you want to deal with mail-order fetishists, just sell your panties on Craigslist and be done with it. You'll benefit from a higher profit margin. And there's no need to refrigerate.

Like everything to do with bodies in our society, the issue is complicated. The ethics of buying, selling, and donating are complicated. The logistics are complicated. But it's great that breast milk is becoming more available to mamas who need it. Supplementing with formula doesn't work for everybody -- all babies have a (minor) dairy allergy, and some have a severe one; some babies are allergic to soy. They've gotta eat something. But keeping the digestive tract clear of everything but breast milk for the first six months is supposed to help the villi in the stomach lining to develop.

If you're comfortable with it, breast is best. Even if it's somebody else's.

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