An initiative that seeks to increase breastfeeding rates among urban black mothers is under fire from Detroit breastfeeding advocates who worry it could exploit the women the company claims to want to help.
An open letter published last week by Detroit nonprofit Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association calls on Medolac Laboratories to answer questions about an initiative to enroll 2,000 more urban African-American mothers as breast milk donors for a cooperative milk bank. More than 400 individuals and organizations signed the letter.
Medolac's milk bank, Mother's Milk Cooperative, runs the only program in the nation that pays milk donors, according to the company. Members -- who currently number over 1,000 throughout 47 states -- earn $1 for each ounce of excess breast milk they donate and receive benefits like dividends and stocks. Milk is then sold to hospitals, where it's used for sick and preterm infant care. The co-op is incorporated in Michigan, the Detroit News reports, while Medolac Laboratories is based in Oregon.
In September, Medolac announced it had chosen Detroit as the pilot city for its call to commitment campaign for the Clinton Foundation's Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). At the time, Medolac Chairman and CEO Elena Medo said the initiative would “encourage these mothers to breastfeed longer, provide community peer support for breastfeeding and create new income opportunities for these women and their families.” Medolac estimates that over three years the financial impact of the program on urban African-American women will be more than $6.6 million.
But Kiddada Green, founding executive director of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association (BMBFA), and others wonder why a campaign to help local women didn't begin with consulting those women and the community groups that support them.
In the letter to Medolac, BMBFA asks questions about leadership, plans for the milk collected in Detroit and steps Medolac is taking to ensure the program doesn't exploit low-income black women in Detroit.
“Given the economic incentives, we are deeply concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies,” the letter states.
Green echoed those concerns when speaking to The Huffington Post.
“If you’re looking for a place for excess milk, why would you come to the community that has the lowest breastfeeding rate?” she said, referencing data that shows black women have a much lower breastfeeding rate nationally and in Michigan. “Why else would you be coming here other than, it appears to me, that black women are in a vulnerable state in the city of Detroit."
Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association runs a breastfeeding club and other programs for mothers and families. Courtesy BMBFA
But Medo emphatically denied that claim in a Detroit News article.
"We would never take milk from a poor woman who didn't have enough for their own babies," she told the outlet.
The company has an extensive screening process for potential donors, and its commitment to responsible practices states that “Donor milk should be sourced in a way that ensures the health and well being of the donor and her infant."
In an email to HuffPost, Medolac Laboratories spokesman Doug Hawkin said the company was working to conduct meetings with local groups and wasn't able to comment until after they were completed this week. He stressed that the initiative is still in its planning stages and that they “continue to seek additional community health partners before proceeding collectively.”
Despite current tensions, BMBFA and the Medolac initiative have similar goals. BMBFA is also working to improve breastfeeding rates for African-American women by providing support, education and free resources for women during and after pregnancy.
For now, Green will continue pushing for Medolac to give thorough answers to the questions in their open letter -- she said they had emailed a short response, but it hadn’t clarified much -- and to meet with BMBFA and other community groups.
“I feel as if you’re going to bring a program to a city, then you should be willing to meet with the people within the city who have concerns about it,” Green said. “If Medolac’s coming here, we’re going to demand that they’re accountable to what they [say they’ll] do.”