When sisters Kendra Valton and Gina VanCant first became pregnant around the same time, they were living several states apart. But it wasn’t long before Valton and her husband picked up and moved from New York City to just across the street from VanCant and her family.
“We got to be moms together,” Valton reminisces. “We were conjoined at the hip.”
Enjoying their young sons, they would sit and talk.
“Breastfeeding is all we ever talked about,” Valton says.
Both moms endured their own breastfeeding challenges and some shared, namely when they returned to work. Impassioned by their experiences, the duo started dreaming up ways to help other parents navigate breastfeeding.
At first, they got excited about facilitating milk shipment for mothers who needed to be away from their babies, a model similar to the services offered by Milk Stork.
But as they dug into their research, Valton says they realized parents’ realities in their state:
- Very few women continue exclusive breastfeeding for longer than eight weeks.
- Women who are less educated, Black, or receiving Medicaid services have lower rates of breastfeeding.
- Ohio initiation rates and exclusive breastfeeding rates at six months remain below Healthy People 2020. [retrieved from: Ohio Department of Health]
- Find out how your state compares here.
- Racial disparities in infant mortality are striking.
Stunned by these stats, the sisters shifted their focus slightly to education and breastfeeding visibility, especially in the African American community. Their social enterprise, The Milk Mission, was born.
Last month, The Milk Mission received some funding from SEA Change, to help shape their vision.
The organization is multifaceted. It will offer an “Online Breastfeeding University” where moms can take a number of modules from their phone or other devices. The Milk Mission is also in the process of creating a breast pump distribution program.
The duo plans to continue connecting with parents and community members with an interest in maternal child health (everyone!), by providing culturally appropriate infant feeding education.
Valton acknowledges that there is often “cultural unattachment” from care providers who serve families of color, and she hopes to help fill in the gap.
Cecilia Obeng and colleagues point out in African-American Women’s Perceptions and Experiences About Breastfeeding: “Historically, African-American women were utilized as ‘wet nurses,’ where women were required to breastfeed children of households where they rendered service as caregivers (27). Perhaps, after the ‘wet nurse’ era ended women within the African-American community perceived breastfeeding as a symbol of powerlessness or objectification.”
Valton says: “We heard those stories from our grandma.”
Valton’s approach is to bring these stories to the forefront without making those involved in the conversation feel like it’s wrong or shameful.
As with any social organization, partnership is important to the duo. They’ve partnered with community centers in Cleveland, done work with CelebrateOne, and plan to build a relationship with Ohio State University.
Valton recently completed the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). She calls the course an eye-opener; whereas she once connected with parents with her personal story, she now has evidence-based support tools to better uplift families.
You can find The Milk Mission on Facebook. Stay tuned for the launch of their new website anticipated soon!