It was a vision two years in the making that came to fruition over the past week – making pasteurized, donated human milk available for babies.
The Vermont Donor Milk Center officially opened for business on Jan. 6 and is the only place in the state, outside of hospitals, for people to get safe, pasteurized breast milk which has been tested and screened.
“This is the fun part,” said Amy Wenger who, after those two years of planning and going through the necessary steps and channels to launch such an enterprise, was excited to see her vision become a reality.
Wenger is one of the center’s co-executive directors along with Rachel Foxx. The two have worked hard over the past two years to establish the facility--finally finding a building in Essex Junction to house their dream.
They explored different options including those which would see the center located within a health care provider. However, being a nonprofit with no help from patients’ insurance left it low on the priority list for those types of corporations. A personal connection then led Wenger and Foxx to go a different route, one which was actually more attractive to them.
“We kind of thought outside of the box a little bit and said, ‘Let’s take it out the medical home and create a different model,’” Wenger said. “I felt it would be more accessible, and this is kind of a central location. It already comes with a great community of people who are already accessing those groups in the village here, so we’re just an extension of that.”
“Those groups” are the Evolution Prenatal & Family Yoga Center and Wiggle Room, a pair of children and family-focused businesses which also reside within the structure at 37 Lincoln Street in Essex Junction. Wenger and Foxx both taught for Susan Cline Lucey, the founder and owner of the yoga center. When Lucey showed them the lower space of her building, Wenger and Foxx immediately knew that it was destined to be the home of their vision.
“We had come here just to check it out, and it was beautiful,” Wenger said. “And when [Susan] brought us down here, Rachel and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘This is it. This is the perfect space.’ Then we said goodbye, and six hours later I get a text: ‘Can you talk right now?’ [Susan] called me up, and she’s like, ‘I’m in; I’m all in.’”
Wenger and Foxx are both registered nurses with lactation expertise. They have spent time working with mothers and babies at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) as well as in outpatient pediatric clinics. The pair collaborated to start the project before finding four others (Susan Cline Lucey, Ross Saner, Casey Sanner, and Taryn Hennebicque) to round out the board.
The American Pediatrics Association recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months and continue as long as both mother and baby wish it. According to the Centers for Disease Control, being breastfed reduces an infant’s risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), ear infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.
According to the Vermont Donor Milk Center’s website, 40 percent of Vermont’s newborns require supplemental feeding for the first few weeks of their lives. Reasons for that include, among others, immunologic deficiencies, babies’ inability to latch, a tongue or lip tie, maternal health complications, or adopting parents not having the ability to create their own breast milk.
Patients looking to obtain some of the many jars of milk stored in the center’s freezer need a prescription from a medical professional in order to do so, but the center’s staff is able to help those parents get the necessary documentation. Vermont Donor Milk Center also provides lactation services and helps new mothers on their breastfeeding journey. There are no geographic restrictions to patients’ residency, Wenger explained, as people traveling from near and far can have a prescription faxed to the center for them to stop by and make a purchase.
Before the Vermont Donor Milk Center, people could buy pasteurized milk from out-of-state services. However, that would take time for delivery and would likely be a bulk purchase which required consumers to estimate how much milk they would need for the following few days or weeks.
“We wanted to make it easier for postpartum families and make it more accessible so that you don’t have to make this big, expensive decision while you’re in the hospital--while your baby’s crying in your arms or you’re going through a difficult time learning how to breastfeed,” said Foxx. “This way, you can make the decision on a day-to-day basis and come back and get more.”
In addition to supplying patients with the pasteurized donor milk, the center also helps people donate breast milk if they qualify. Prospective donors need to complete a 15-minute phone screening with Mothers Milk Bank Northeast, fill out the required forms, and then get a blood test, which is paid for by the out-of-state milk bank where the pasteurization occurs. If qualified, donors then bring their milk to the Essex Junction site for it to be shipped to the Mothers Milk Bank Northeast.
Prices for the milk can vary as the center uses a sliding scale which takes into account patients’ financial circumstances.
“It’s based on financial need from the qualifications that the Vermont [Women, Infants, and Children] program uses. So it’s definitely more generous than the rest of the United States. We thought that that was a great guideline because that’s what Vermont uses for everything, so our sliding scale will be based on that and those income brackets.”
“We have talked to all of the lactation consultants, and they all know about us,” Foxx said. “All the nurses in the Children’s Hospital [of UVMMC] know about us, and they’ve been very supportive. The word is getting out.”
“I think the most important part about what we’re doing here,” Foxx added, “is that we are equalizing nutrition. We really want everyone to have access to donor milk if they want it.”