The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences celebrated the opening of the first milk bank in the state on Wednesday.
The UAMS Milk Bank, in the Monroe Building just off UAMS' main campus in Little Rock, will provide donated breast milk to hospital neonatal intensive care units around the state.
In the past, hospitals have purchased milk from banks in Texas, Michigan, Illinois and Oklahoma at a cost of more than $1 million a year, according to a UAMS news release.
"We all know that breastfeeding is incredibly important, but I think this is a step on the bridge to making Arkansas safer, healthier and really helping to improve the health of all the mothers and infants around the state and decreasing the risk of infant mortality and maternal mortality, and that is why it is so close to my heart," Dr. Misty L. Virmani, the UAMS Milk Bank's executive medical director, said
The bank houses screening, pasteurization and nutritional analysis facilities, as well as places for women to breastfeed or donate their milk.
After filling out a health screening form and getting bloodwork done, donors can drop off breast milk at one of several "depots" across the state, UAMS spokeswoman Andrea Peel said.
She said depots are located in Jonesboro, Fayetteville, Batesville, Clinton and Little Rock, and additional depots are opening in Conway, Rogers and Stuttgart.
Potential donors can also contact the milk bank to have a shipping container sent to them for free. More information on making donations is available at the milk bank's web site, uamshealth.com/uams-milk-bank.
State Rep. Aaron Pilkington, who sponsored House Bill 1067, now Act 225, in 2021 to create the milk bank a special fund for it, spoke at the ribbon cutting on Wednesday about why he thought the milk bank was needed.
"This isn't a silver bullet, but this is a step in the right direction, and I'm so honored I was able to run this bill," Pilkington said.
Previously, mothers who had an excess of breast milk did not have an easy way to donate it despite many people expressing an interest in it, he said.
"Clearly there was a disconnect between what is happening and the willingness of Arkansans to help out fellow mothers," Pilkington said.
DeCaria Williams, one of the milk bank's laboratory technicians, said the milk bank's lab will keep donated milk frozen until it is pasteurized, a process that involves heating it 162 degrees. After it cools, the lab will package it and ship it on dry ice, Williams said.
She said her team traveled to a milk bank in Texas for hands-on training on pasteurizing and storing the milk.
"I think it's going to be that missing link between mothers who can't breastfeed or don't produce enough milk or people who adopt babies, they'll be able to close the gap between sick babies and the mortality rates," Williams said.
The milk bank plans to eventually offer services such as breastfeeding classes, counseling for new mothers, safe sleep programs and car seat checks.
Ly is a Report for America Corps member.