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Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin is a 24/7 operation — even during a freeze

A photo of a box with a sign that says, "Deliver Immediately. Milk Will Thaw."
Mother's Milk Bank at Austin
Mother's Milk Bank at Austin recently announced it had dispensed its 10 millionth ounce of human donor milk.

While much of Austin was hunkered down at home on a freezing federal holiday Monday, staff at Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin were hard at work.

Babies are still being born and need to be fed, said Director Kim Updegrove, who gets emergency calls on her cellphone outside the nonprofit's normal 9-5 hours of operation.

“It’s an ever-present need,” she said. “Right now, we are working very, very hard with a full staff to pack up milk in coolers with dry ice.”

The dry ice is a contingency in case deliveries outside Austin end up delayed in transit due to inclement weather. As one of the largest nonprofit milk banks in the United States, MMBA supplies around 175 hospitals around the country with pasteurized human donor milk.

Studies have shown that preterm babies who consume breast milk are less likely to develop a severe intestinal disease that is a leading cause of death in babies with low birth weights. Much of the milk bank's supply goes to preterm infants in neonatal intensive care units, but the nonprofit also donates milk to some other babies, including healthy newborns whose mothers are waiting for their milk supply to come in or face other challenges with breastfeeding.

MMBA was founded in 1999 by two neonatologists who wanted to make the benefits of breast milk more widely available in Central Texas by collecting milk from lactating mothers with milk to spare. In the 25 years since it opened, the milk bank has had to operate through many less than ideal conditions, such as those presented by Hurricane Harvey.

“We had to find a local volunteer helicopter pilot to take some milk that was needed on an emergency basis to the city of Houston,” Updegrove said. “He delivered to three different hospitals in the Houston area since the roads and the airports were not open —so we’re no strangers to crisis.”

Times of crisis have called for creativity. During Winter Storm Uri in 2021, Updegrove said power outages caused backup milk in freezers to spoil. That meant more families were seeking the milk bank’s services as staff were struggling to get to work during the freeze. And while generator power kept the nonprofit’s freezers and processing equipment going, it also had to navigate a city-wide notice to boil water.

While Updegrove hopes this winter storm is less challenging, she said MMBA is prepared to uphold its mission: providing infants who are born early, small and sick with the benefits of human milk when their mothers aren’t able to provide it.

That mission is a challenge even when there isn’t a freeze. The organization recently celebrated dispensing its 10 millionth ounce of milk. Updegrove said MMBA reached that milestone by valuing and preserving every drop of donor milk it receives, because donors are always in short supply.

“These are mothers who ... made a very strategic choice not to use their extra milk in any other way—not to share it informally, not to dump it down the sink, but to go through a process in order to donate it to the milk bank so that they can help save the lives of these very fragile infants," she said. "In honor of them, we don't [waste] a single drop of that milk."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the nonprofit as the Mother's Milk Bank of Austin.

Olivia Aldridge is KUT's health care reporter. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @ojaldridge.
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