Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
While there are those who think that breastfeeding is easy, the reality is that for many women it’s not, says Rickeshia Williams, co-founder and executive director of Milk Like Mine
which was established in 2019 to give mothers in the African American community access to lactation specialists who looked like them.
MLM is expanding on its original mission through the opening of a Baby Café for all breastfeeding women and their families in partnership with Bronson Battle Creek Hospital and Bronson Methodist Hospital. The Café, the first of its kind in Calhoun County, will operate out of the MLM headquarters at 233 E. Roosevelt Avenue and will be open every other Friday from 5-8 p.m. on a drop-in basis. Like MLM, the services and resources provided at the Baby Café will be free to all who walk through the doors.
“Because it’s a drop-in model, they can get the services they need, sit back and chat with other moms, and be on their way,” Williams says.
The work of MLM was initially focused on ensuring that women of color had access to resources and support at no cost because of a lack of support from medical professionals, a lack of role models, and the historical trauma of Black Women being used as wet nurses during slavery. Black women in slavery were forced to stop nursing their own children to provide breast milk for the children of the slave owner, according to an article titled “The History of Black Women & Breastfeeding
The rates of breastfeeding continue to be lower for African American women than non-Hispanic white women, according to a report by the Birth Equity Education Project
“For non-Hispanic White mothers, the rate of initiation is 90% and the three-month duration is about 65%, which is higher than the overall rates in Michigan,” the report says. “Breastfeeding efforts seem to have helped the steady increase in initiation and duration across the state. However, among Black mothers, the rates have not increased at a steady rate. In 2019, the initiation rate was lower than the previous year (72%) while the three-month duration rate also decreased (34%) which was about three percent lower than in 2018 for these mothers."
The women and families who come into the Baby Café will have access to MLM’s staff of more than seven which includes an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, a Certified Lactation Counselor, and volunteers, in addition to co-facilitators Williams and Karen Garcia. Baby Café is a licensed name and a service delivery model that is part of a larger collaborative across the United States and that collects data and measures outcomes.
“No” was Williams's response when asked if she ever envisioned the Baby Café concept becoming a full-fledged part of MLM which serves upwards of 10 mothers a week in-person, over the telephone, or virtually with hours of operation set to meet the needs of all women.
“I think I’ve always had a vision of MLM growing and we do free pregnancy testing all the way through postpartum. It’s a birth to breast and beyond model,” she says. “When we first started talking about the Baby Café we knew it fit in line and fortified what we are already doing. A lot of success for moms who are breastfeeding comes through pre-natal and postpartum education for breastfeeding needs.”
WKKF has been funding the work of MLM since its inception. The organization also receives funding from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the Binda Foundation, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, and the United Way of South Central Michigan.
Dr. Marijata Daniel-Echols, a Program Officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
“This is how we’re able to offer our services free of charge,” Williams says.
While MLM is partnering with Bronson Battle Creek Hospital, an organization in Kalamazoo that has not been publicly identified will partner with Bronson Methodist Hospital. These are the only two hospitals in the Bronson Healthcare Group that have Women and Children’s programs and they are actively engaged in this work, says Carol Fuller, System Director for Women and Children’s Services with Bronson Healthcare Group. Bronson is the fiduciary for the grant.
“When we say it’s a partnership that’s exactly what it is. It’s not just us giving money and having them do all of the work,” Fuller says. “We’re bringing our resources and people into those environments as well so they can support the whole family unit. We’re providing trained professionals who out in the community where they live to work with folks who look like them and have similar ethnic backgrounds,”
This eliminates the need for birthing persons to have to go back to the hospital or a doctor to get the support they need. Bronson is using the term 'birthing persons' to better reflect the diversity of those who give birth at their hospitals.
“It really means that we recognize that not all who give birth here are mothers and this was not inclusive enough for the population who want to deliver within our hospital system,” says Fuller. “There are transgender folks having and raising babies together and breastfeeding, adoptive couples, and individuals. Birthing persons is a much more inclusive term.”
Lessons from the pandemic
“Milk Like Mine has been a partner organization with us for a couple of years now,” says Dr. Marijata Daniel-Echols, a WKKF Program Officer. “When we first had the opportunity to partner with them they didn’t have a space. Now they have a space where families can come. They built a reputation as a safe space and provider on their own.”
During the Pandemic, Daniel-Echols served on Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.
Among the learning moments for Task Force members was that it’s always better to get information to people from trusted sources.
The question, she says, was how to provide resources and access to people in convenient ways from people they trust. This resulted in numerous community outreach efforts including the creation of community vaccine hubs and churches partnering with mobile units that were taking information and resources to people where they live.
The Baby Cafes are one more example of these efforts which were bolstered by work that Bronson Healthcare Group was already doing, Daniel-Echols says.
“The Baby Cafés are an outgrowth of that work Bronson did to get Baby-Friendly certification, she says. “As they were working on the Baby Friendly Hospital designation, the last of the 10 steps was about connection to the community. When you look at race-based disparities and breastfeeding the informational part of the disconnect is when people leave the hospital without addressing breastfeeding problems when they happen.”
“We started leaning into this 10th step and leaning into building a task force which asked questions like ‘How do they build a better connection between the hospital and the community and increase community support for families after they leave the hospital to maintain breastfeeding cafes?”
For them to work, Daniel-Echols says, “We would need to partner with community organizations that had a deep connection with families and Milk Like Mine has that social capital in community. The point with all of these locations is it is not the Bronson Healthcare System dropping into the community,” but rather recognizing that there is a community-based organization already working with women and families struggling with breastfeeding and getting resources, high-quality services, and information to them in a way that they trust.
“We have this trusted community partner already. Milk Like Mine started with a couple of women who said, ‘This needs to be better for us,” Daniel-Echols says. “Everything hard is better when you have a community to do it.”
Feeding a need
Society’s acceptance and awareness of the need to have breastfeeding-friendly spaces has increased through the efforts of those like Williams who says it sometimes felt like she was fighting an uphill battle.
Among the victories, was a mom who received support and services from MLM who helped the local factory where she was employed to become a breastfeeding-friendly workplace.
“She found a pod so moms have an actual place to go that isn’t a bathroom or closet,” Williams says. “When it’s a male-dominated workplace, they don’t know how to factor in that someone might need to pump their breast milk.”
Women who work outside of the home in general have certain challenges which are heightened where there is typically no designated space set aside for them to pump, Daniel-Echols says.
“Depending on the type of job they’re working, it may not necessarily be conducive for pumping, and that puts women at a disadvantage as it relates to going back to work or going back earlier. They’re not taking four or five months of maternity leave and then they have to go back into conditions that are not breastfeeding-friendly. “
However, this picture is changing because of federal legislation.
The federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding mothers at work, according to the Office of
Women’s Health within the U.S. Departments of Health & Human Services.
These accommodations include time for women to express milk and a private space that is not a bathroom each time they need to pump,” says the legistlation.
For those who seek a safe and supportive space to breastfeed that isn’t available at their place of employment, Bronson is giving them options with plans to expand the Baby Cafes in other locations in Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties. In 2024 Fuller says Kalamazoo will be home to the first Baby Café in Kalamazoo County and there will be two to three more opening in Calhoun County.
MLM is in conversations with the Burma Center and interest is being expressed by the Latinx community, as well as individuals in Albion.
“We’re really focusing on women of color and diverse populations and meeting needs where they’re at,” Fuller says. “Baby Cafés are not exclusive, they’re inclusive. We’re looking at making it accessible to all people.”