Family Matters

A Groupon for Breast Milk?

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Groupon offers deep discounts on food and drink, but historically, breast milk has not been on the menu.

Last week, however, Groupon subscribers in Indianapolis received a $10 pitch for pasteurized donor human milk from the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank (IMMB). The fine print explained what was going on: philanthropy. People who purchased the deal weren’t getting cutthroat bargains on breast milk for themselves; instead, the money raised would be used by the milk bank to offset the cost of providing human milk to premature and sick babies in need.

The charitable deals are courtesy of G-Team, Groupon’s good-doing arm. The fund-raising represents a return to the company’s roots: Groupon started as a social-action network in 2008 and later transitioned to offering daily deals. G-Team launched in Chicago in July 2010 and has since expanded to 65 other cities, or one-third of Groupon’s markets; Indy came online at the end of August.

Other G-Team offers have included homeless shelters, school districts and museums — essentially any not-for-profit organization. The milk bank, says G-Team spokesperson Kelsey O’Neill, was a perfect fit. “Everyone kind of has a soft spot for providing babies the nutrition they need,” says O’Neill.

MORE: Milk Banks vs. Milk Swaps: Breast Milk’s Latest Controversy

After mom’s own milk, donor milk is the next-best option for preemies whose mothers may be sick, taking drugs incompatible with breast-feeding or otherwise unable to provide breast milk for their infants. An increasing number of hospitals have switched to donor milk in their neonatal intensive-care units.

But the milk doesn’t come cheap. Although it’s donated by lactating mothers, milk banks have to pay to screen donors for disease. The banks supply bags in which the mothers freeze pumped breast milk, underwrite the costs associated with shipping and pasteurizing the milk to ensure it’s safe for already immune-compromised infants. All that overhead adds up: donor milk typically costs $4.50 per ounce (30 milliliters).

Some preemies take as little as 5 ml a day, meaning that the 132 Groupons sold could cover the cost of 9 liters (304 oz.) of donor milk, feeding 1,800 babies for a day. “That is huge,” says Dane Nutty, IMMB’s program manager.

MORE: In Pittsburgh, Public Art Doubles as a Sanctuary for Breast-Feeding Moms

It was Nutty’s messages on Twitter — somewhat of an anomaly in the female-centric milk bank world, Nutty’s Twitter handle is @milkbankguy — that originally grabbed Groupon’s attention. The IMMB ships up to 200 oz. (6 l) a week to hospitalized premies, but some babies in need have parents who can’t afford donor milk, which is only intermittently covered by insurance. The money raised through Groupon will help offset the cost of milk for those families.

Megan McLay, a nursing mom from Vancouver, Wash., purchased the deal and encouraged friends on Facebook to do the same. “It seemed like a small price to pay to help out some preemies,” says McLay, who has a 2-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter.

She also admits to feeling relieved to learn that the deal is on the up-and-up. “At first,” she says, “I worried it was a scam.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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