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Breast milk company cancels campaign to recruit Detroit moms

Jan 22, 2015

Andrea Short is a biracial mom who sells her excess milk to Medolac, a for-profit breast milk company.
Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

Black women historically have lower rates of breast-feeding than white women do.

An Orgeon-based breast milk company called Medolac said it had a way to help that: it claims its "donor moms" (as the company calls the women it pays for breast milk) report breast-feeding their own kids for longer periods.

One of those women is Andrea Short of Newport, Michigan.

"She was probably four months old when I realized I had an overflow problem," says Short, looking on as her 15-month-old daughter Johanna munches strawberries on the couch.

Short has a son, too: Jaden just turned four, and he had his birthday at Chuck E. Cheese, as he will tell anyone willing to listen. 

Short works at a local hospital, she's multiracial (her dad is black and her mom is white) and she and her husband don't make that much money; they get benefits from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program.

Andrea breast-fed her daughter Johanna for over a year, in part because of the extra income.
Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio

She breast-fed Jaden, but when Johanna was born, she wouldn’t latch on to breast-feed.

So Short was getting up at 4 am to pump and put that milk the in the freezer. Eventually, she said she wound up with an overflowing freezer stuffed with 2,000 ounces of breast milk.

"I had a storage problem! I just didn't have anywhere else to put more frozen milk," she laughs. 

For a while, Short was donating that milk to a local, non-profit milk bank.

But a friend told her about Medolac, which pays moms $1 an ounce for breast milk.

The company says it then sells that milk, at a profit, to hospitals, where it helps premature babies.

Over the next nine months or so, Short says she sent about 5,400 ounces to Medolac.

"It did help cover some bills. I bought myself a porch swing! That was my treat to myself because I really wanted a porch swing! And we definitely paid bills with it. There was a time when my husband was working fewer hours, so it really helped us cover bills."

And, Short says she originally planned to stop breastfeeding Johanna after a year. But she's continued, because of Medolac.

"It was a great incentive for me to continue and make a little bit of extra money and help some other babies who need it."

Then Medolac announced a campaign to increase breast-feeding among low-income black moms.

It would do that in part, Medolac said, by coming to Detroit, where it would work with a local business incubator to offer support services and education to breast-feeding moms.

But critics worried what Medolac really wanted was more profits.

Kiddada Green runs the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association in Detroit.
Credit Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association

"There's concern obviously about the infant mortality of black babies in Detroit," says Kiddada Green, head of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association in Detroit, which offers support and community services for women.  

She and other community activists sent an open letter to Medolac.

They worried that moms might feel financial pressure to sell ALL their milk, at the expense of their own kids.

"What credible, independent evidence did they have that offering mothers financial incentives would increase their breastfeeding rates? And we just asked them to show us these things,” says Green.

The company pointed to the personal stories it got from donor moms like Andrea Short.

But rather than meet with its critics, Medolac sent out a press release saying "the environment had become too toxic ... and we see no viable pathway forward to advance this campaign."

Medolac declined to be interviewed for this story.

As for Kiddada Green, she says she's sure there are plenty of moms like Andrea Short who have really good experiences selling their excess breast milk.

But her problem is with the company's approach.

"I'm concerned with those who advocate savior behavior, and never consult with those that they want to save."