By week 20 of her pregnancy, Joy Pileggi knew that her second daughter, Allison, had little chance of surviving past birth.
She had developed Trisomy 18, also known as Edward’s Syndrome, a rare condition with a near-zero long-term survival rate. But knowing what was coming didn’t make Allison’s death any less agonizing for Pileggi and her husband, who lost their newborn in 2021, just minutes after her birth.
For bereaved mothers, many signs of motherhood remain after losing a child. Producing breast milk is one of them, and not pumping could potentially lead to medical problems. Pileggi saw the excess breast milk as an opportunity, both to have a physical representation of the daughter she lost and to provide much needed help to struggling mothers across California.
And this year, her donations to Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose are providing vital relief to thousands of mothers across California struggling with the recent formula shortage.
“When you lose a baby and they’re not around you, it’s almost like they were never there,” Pileggi said between tears. “Just the fact that I had something tangible that I could give to the world, it’s a really nice way to hold on to her memory.”
Breast milk banks have long served an important role in communities across the United States, helping provide affordable human milk to families and hospital newborn intensive care units (NICU). Amid the recent formula shortage, the banks have taken on an increased role, helping provide milk to families who may be unable to access or afford the increasingly scarce supply of formula.
“The need for milk donation is continuous,” said Jonathan Bautista, the director of Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, adding that the formula shortage compounded the already-existing urgency. “There are babies in the NICU that need and benefit from human milk, and a lot of times these babies’ moms don’t have milk yet or there’s not enough. This is how we are able to supply those babies and other infants who are fragile.”
The history of milk banks is deeply woven within San Jose, which became home to Mothers’ Milk Bank in 1974, now the oldest milk bank in North America. Nearly 50 years later, the bank’s reach has expanded beyond the Bay Area, collecting and distributing milk across California and to neighboring states. Pileggi, who lives in Anaheim, is one of many mothers from all over the Golden State who ship milk regularly to San Jose because of the scarcity of milk banks in California. As one of only two non-profit banks in the state, Mothers’ Milk Bank has taken on an increasingly important role this year.
Since May, about 40% of all baby formula products have been out of stock nationwide. The formula industry is almost completely controlled by three manufacturers — Abbott Nutrition, Gerber Products Company and Reckitt — so when Abbott Nutrition issued a recall over contamination concerns, it sent waves through the market. Prices of the remaining formula products shot up, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign an anti-price-gouging law into order on June 8. But for many mothers, encountering stocked shelves, especially ones with the correct formula for their child, is still a rarity.
At a time when formula corporations have left families out to dry, non-profit milk banks have stepped up. In a small alcove sandwiched between a commercial gym and an urgent care facility, a team of medical professionals adorned in medical gowns, masks and hair nets have been emptying out their newly-expanded breast milk freezer. Since the start of the shortage, Mothers’ Milk Bank’s San Jose center has been quietly working with city officials, local hospitals and individual families to provide some relief to the local communities most heavily impacted. During the past several months, the bank has been shipping out 5,000 ounces of milk per day, a 20% increase from last year and the most the bank has ever delivered.
“The team always rises to the challenge,” Bautista said. Throughout the pandemic, the bank has struggled with volatile milk donations, sometimes receiving more than it has capacity for and sometimes struggling to keep donors engaged.
Though the bank does not provide the milk for free, charging $3.75 per ounce, it delivers the milk to anywhere in the area on the basis of need, providing a necessary safety valve for mothers running out of options. Many mothers can also use health insurance to help cover the cost of buying the milk.
But none of the milk bank’s operations — its walk-in freezer, its beakers full of milk, its whirring pasteurization room — would be possible without the help of donors such as Pileggi. Since the pandemic, Mother’s Milk Bank has made a strong push to reach out to parents to ask for help. Luckily, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. When Pileggi was considering a “retirement” from breast milk donation earlier this year after nearly two years of donation, the thought of how much she could support mothers reeling from the shortage pulled her back in.
“It really weighed on my heart, and I thought, ‘Why stop now, I’ll just do as much as I can to help as many people as I can,’ ” Pileggi said.
In the past two years, Pileggi has donated more than 10,000 ounces of breastmilk to Mother’s Milk Bank in San Jose. That’s equivalent to more than 78 gallon milk jugs, enough to fully support a newborn for more than a year.
Donating, she said, has become a family affair. When Pileggi finishes pumping, her daughter Elianna, 3, helps package the milk. When they’re done, her husband loads the cooler into their car and drives it to the post office. Just hours later, the milk arrives in San Jose, where Pileggi’s late daughter’s name, Allison, is painted on a mural of a cherry blossom tree. The tree honors the lost children whose mothers have donated their milk to families in need.
“Just knowing how many mothers we’re helping,” Pileggi said, “that’s always on our minds.”
If you are interested in learning more about donating or receiving breast milk, visit mothersmilk.org or call (408) 998-4550.