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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont's First Milk Bank Offers Nutritional Choice For New Parents

Bottles with blue caps and labels that say "pasteurized human milk."
Jane Lindholm
/
VPR
Pasteurized human milk is available for families in need at the Vermont Donor Milk Center in Essex Junction.

At the newly opened Vermont Donor Milk Center in Essex Junction, there is a bar.

"We offer hot beverages, cold beverages," said the nonprofit's co-executive director Rachel Foxx. "And donor human milk."

Foxx is a nurse and lactation consultant and works at the mother-baby unit at University of Vermont Medical Center. She and co-executive director Amy Wenger, a registered nurse, certified breastfeeding specialist and clinical nurse manager for Franklin County Home Health, opened the Vermont Donor Milk Center three weeks ago.

It's in a space shared with a pre- and post-natal yoga studio and a play space for young kids. It's also Vermont's first donor milk center outside a hospital.

Both Foxx and Wenger volunteer their time there, they said, because they want to provide options for Vermont families with infants who need supplemental nutrition.

" ... I was holding a mama in my arms, and she was weeping, because she knew she had to supplement her baby, she knew she was going to have to do it with formula, and she was really sad about that." — Amy Wenger, Vermont Donor Milk Center

"I worked up at UVMMC, up at the mother-baby unit as well, and they have a pasteurized donor milk program there," Wenger said. "And it was there where I was holding a mama in my arms, and she was weeping, because she knew she had to supplement her baby, she knew she was going to have to do it with formula, and she was really sad about that."

"We found that 40% of Vermonters are being supplemented after they leave the hospital," Foxx said of babies.

Some families choose to supplement with formula, but Foxx said for families looking for human milk, the options are limited and can be economically challenging.

"In order to mail order it, you have to have a credit card," she said. "Not everyone has a credit card."

While financial programs do exist, Foxx said the application process can take some time. Whereas the donor milk center, she added, can provide breast milk on a sliding cost scale for families, with a doctor's prescription.

Foxx said donor human milk is not covered by insurance, though she and Wenger hope to change that in the next year.

"We're gonna gather enough information that we can take that to Medicaid and say, 'This needs to be covered, it is a real medical need,'" she said.

The donor milk center also facilitates donation for lactating parents who want to donate breast milk to other families. Donors must go through a screening process and their milk is sent out of state for pasteurization before being distributed to milk banks throughout the northeast.

Two people hold mugs that say "Vermont Donor Milk Center"
Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
/
VPR
Rachel Foxx, left, and Amy Wenger, right, opened the Vermont Donor Milk Center in Essex Junction, the first donor milk bank in Vermont outside a hospital.

As for the milk at the Vermont Donor Milk Center, it is, for the moment, kept in a donated stand-up freezer.

"The temperature is monitored, and we check the temps everyday," Foxx said. "It's all in the guidelines of the Mother's Milk Bank of the Northeast and the Human Milk Banking [Association] of North America."

The donor milk center has "term milk," though "pre-term milk," which Wenger said is from mothers who have their babies before 38 weeks into their pregnancy and therefore has a different nutritional composition, is also available in the hospital. She added there's a way for babies who have a dairy allergy to access milk from donors who don't consume dairy themselves.

Donors have many reasons for choosing to give their breastmilk to other families. Wenger said pumping and donating milk can be a helpful step forward in the grieving process for the mother of a stillborn baby.

"[It's] a great way to feel a) connected, still, to their baby because that's their baby's milk and b) to feel like they're giving something, still, because that loss is undescribable," she said. "The intake process is the same, but we want to help streamline that for them, get them everything they need, and that way they don't have to think about it too much."

"I think women do feel guilty when they can't breastfeed or even when they choose not to, and that's societal pressure, and they shouldn't feel that way, it's their choice." — Rachel Foxx, Vermont Donor Milk Center

The overall goal of the Vermont Donor Milk Center, Foxx said, is to "equalize nutrition across the state." This includes providing access to mothers not close to the donor milk center's Essex Junction location.

"I made a delivery at 6:30 at night to a mom in Lamoille county," Wenger said. "We've got volunteers that have offered to make deliveries happen to those areas, and that will grow, we feel, as we're getting more and more calls from different areas."

As for the mothers who may never breastfeed their child, the Vermont Donor Milk Center wants to be inclusive of their needs, too.

"I think women do feel guilty when they can't breastfeed or even when they choose not to, and that's societal pressure, and they shouldn't feel that way, it's their choice," Foxx said. "And so to offer the choice, that now you can have pasteurized donor human milk as your supplementation -- you can also choose formula -- we hope that eases the guilt on families, and that they can truly choose to use the one they prefer to use."

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