Equity Summit Encourages Hard Conversations and Fresh Perspectives on Infant Feeding

October 20, 2023

By Tonya Kubo
California Breastfeeding Coalition

Energy remains high following the Lactation Justice Equity Summit, hosted by BreastfeedLA on Oct. 12 and 13.

CBC board members Angelica Rojas (left) and Brenda Vieyra at the Lactation Equity Summit.

The goal of the equity summit aligns with the California Breastfeeding Coalition’s (CBC) vision that all California families receive equitable access to quality timely essential lactation support throughout the perinatal period. CBC board members who attended the event said it was a powerful reminder that the vast disparities we see in California breastfeeding rates exist due to racist structures and systems in health education, communication and medical policies and practices.

The summit’s goal was to use a blend of data and personal stories to pinpoint the structural and institutional saboteurs of lactation and to establish non-conventional strategies to overcome them so that families can meet their infant feeding goals.

Board member Brenda Vieyra, Northeast Valley Health Corporation WIC regional breastfeeding liaison, served on the event planning committee and said the stories shared by families were most powerful.

“That’s one of the key factors that continues to drive my passion and work in lactation,” she said. “By providing a platform for the perspectives of families, researchers and others in the lactation space, I gained greater insight on how communities can come together to support families with their infant feeding journeys.”

Board member Angelica Rojas, attended as an exhibitor on behalf of Mothers’ Milk Bank San Jose.

“When you think about it, equitable feeding is at the very heart of what Mothers’ Milk Bank does,” she said. “We exist to provide an opportunity for babies to get human milk when their own mother’s milk is not available. The question we’re always asking is how can we better support access to human milk for all families who want it?”

CBC board members Grace Yee (left) and Angelica Rojas at the BreastfeedLA Lactation Justice Equity Summit.

An equity issue that hits close to home for Mothers’ Milk Bank is that the state requires Medi-Cal to cover donor human milk for families who need it. Last fall, after years of effort, the state released specific billing codes and updated its provider manuals to clarify the coverage requirements for donor human milk. And yet, Rojas says Medi-Cal continues to reject valid claims.

“We provide pasteurized donor human milk at the lowest price in the nation, but it’s still too expensive for families to pay for it out of pocket,” she said. “It would cost hundreds of dollars per week.”

And that’s really the issue at the heart of equitable feeding: Factors beyond a family’s control prevent chest, breast and human milk feeding — no matter how much they want their infants and children supported by human milk.  

Vieyra said she appreciated the candid conversations on topics considered taboo by some in the first food field: bedsharing, formula feeding, the WHO Code and even how some well-intentioned systems actually cause harm.

BreastfeedLA Executive Director Arissa Palmer said that was by design.

Angelica Rojas, CBC board member and Mothers’ Milk Bank staff member, talks on camera.

“We aren’t afraid to tackle issues that might make some uncomfortable when they are vital for open and informed discussions,” she said. “Systems meant to protect us can sometimes have unintended consequences. We need to critically examine the well-intentioned regulations and guidelines in place and consider whether adjustments are needed to avoid causing more harm than good.”

Everyone agreed that conversations, even the sticky ones, are necessary to open the door for change. And that’s exactly what Palmer and the event planning committee want.

“We hope the conference fosters a more open, informed, and empathetic conversation around infant feeding practices and the systems governing them, ultimately benefiting parents and children,” Palmer said.

According to organizers, 342 individuals from across the state attended the event. BreastfeedLA will release a post-event report in the coming months that will include the latest data as well as recommendations and action steps the community can take to further move the needle and close the gap in infant feeding disparities. Expect to hear more about it in early 2024, along with information on a Know Your Rights Advocacy Training Day in 2024.