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Amid baby formula shortage, Maine's donor breast milk dispensaries bridge the gap

Maine has two donor breast milk dispensaries through Mother's Milk Bank Northeast, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts.

PORTLAND, Maine — Parents struggling to find baby formula are looking to donor breast milk banks to bridge the gap until new supplies are back on store shelves.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase domestic production of formula.

Maine has two donor breast milk dispensaries through Mother's Milk Bank Northeast, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts. One is in Portland, and the other is in Lewiston. There are also several depots where parents can donate their own breast milk after screening.

Dr. Ali Kopelman, M.D., IBCLC, is the pediatrician for Personalized Pediatrics of Maine in Portland. She operates the Portland donor milk dispensary. She said it is easier for solo practitioners to start running these dispensaries because they require someone to monitor the milk. 

Hospitals have donor milk but can only give it to patients.

"I now have people calling me from the hospital. They're not even waiting until they've come home to make that contact to say, 'Hey, I think I'm going to need it in a few days. Will you have it?'" Kopelman said.

She said families who struggle with breastfeeding that generally rely on formula and donor milk are concerned that other families affected by the shortage will buy up the small supply of donor breast milk in Maine.

"There are only four producers of formula in the U.S. So if you shut down one or part of a major one, then those people who do not breastfeed are left in a very tenuous position," Kopelman said.

Donor breast milk is not covered by private insurance. The Maine State Breastfeeding Coalition said MaineCare will start covering it in 2023.

It costs roughly $4 to $5 per ounce. Families are limited to 10 bottles per child per week. Each bottle is about 3.4 ounces, according to Kopelman.

That stress on families convinced Ali Mehlsak to donate unused baby formula sitting in her pantry. She struggled with breastfeeding and got help from Kopelman. On Wednesday, Mehlsack brought Kopelman the remaining formula.

"We can remember what that feeling was like, and so it just seems silly to have it sitting in our pantry unused when there are families who need it," Mehlsak said. "I'm very aware of what it can mean for a family. We had a freezer full of donor milk for weeks and weeks. So we were reliant on someone else's contribution, so we wanted to give back a little of what we could."

There are many resources for what parents should not do during the formula shortage:

- Do not dilute the formula.

- Do not make your own.

- Do not start cow's milk before six months of age.

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