Board of Commissioners proclaims World Breastfeeding Week and honors Black Breastfeeding Week, highlighting disparities and benefits for babies and mothers

August 10, 2022

Veronica Blay, with her husband, Ted McAuley, had made a decision: She would breastfeed their baby when she arrived. But those plans were quickly tested. 

Blay realized breastfeeding would take more than she had expected. 

“I need help,” she said, calling the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

WIC referred her to Sabrina Villemenay, a certified lactation consultant and WIC program supervisor.

Blay felt better instantly. 

Villemenay met with Blay and McAuley, and instructed them on how to properly latch the baby, all while making sure Blay was comfortable as well. 

“I was feeding my baby but at the detriment of myself,” Blay said about her experience before receiving assistance. “I was in constant pain.” 

Today, she uses the education and guidance she received from Villemenay to feed her baby. 

“I am finally feeding my baby without being in tears,” she said. Blay said she and her husband were grateful for the WIC program and hoped it continued for mothers sharing a similar experience. 

Blay shared her story as part of a virtual presentation to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Aug. 4 — proudly holding her sleeping baby to the camera — as part of a proclamation for World Breastfeeding Week in Multnomah County

Healthy Birth Initiative picnic in Summer 2017

“Her face is the result of being well-fed,” Blay said. “For the first time in the longest time, we are finally able to get some sleep.”

Beyond proclaiming Aug. 1 to 7, 2022, as World Breastfeeding Week, the Board also honored Black Breastfeeding Week, which is celebrated annually in the fourth week of August. WIC, along with the County’s Racial and Ethnic approaches to Community Health (REACH) program, gathered to share highlights of the County’s work to support breastfeeding/chestfeeding. 

“Multnomah County recognized the physical and mental benefits of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers, as well as the importance of reducing racial disparities in healthcare and birth outcomes,” said the Multnomah County proclamation

Villemenay’s efforts to help Blay and her family are one of many services the WIC program and REACH provide for breastfeeding/chestfeeding families in the community. 

WIC breastfeeding program participants Veronica Blay and Theodore McAuley said they were grateful for the WIC program

The Oregon WIC Program is a special supplemental and nutrition program for women, infants and children. This public health program supports income-eligible households with pregnant women, postpartum women, and/or infants and children as old as 5. 

WIC provides nutrition education classes, breastfeeding/chestfeeding promotion and support, breast pumps, monthly benefits for certain healthy foods, and referrals to other support programs. 

Multnomah County’s REACH program collaborates with other local programs, in this case WIC, among others, and works with them to implement and focus on three main areas: physical activity, links between the community and clinical services, and nutrition, including breastfeeding/chestfeeding.

This year, that collaboration happened in a year when many community members experienced a severe shortage of infant formula, threatening infant nutrition. WIC and REACH worked to install mobile breastfeeding tents in the community, host a breastfeeding campaign photoshoot to promote breastfeeding, and add breastfeeding spaces in Rockwood as well as the Portland International Airport.

Villemenay praised REACH and the African American Breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon (AABCO) for placing mobile breastfeeding tents with the community. The large pink pop-up tents included rocking chairs and served as a safe space for changing diapers, breastfeeding/chestfeeding, pumping or even just resting. 

In an effort to normalize breastfeeding/chestfeeding, REACH hosted a breastfeeding photoshoot campaign. And, recognizing that active contributors, including family members and partners, are key to the success of sustained breastfeeding, REACH held barbershop talks to include and engage fathers, male partners and family members in the breastfeeding journey. 

“According to the CDC, Black mothers have the lowest rate of breastfeeding initiation and duration rates in our nation,” said Villemenay.

Cherish Wanter, WIC nutrition program specialist for Black, African American and Native American communities, shared REACH’s success in advocating for a lactation space at the Downtown Rockwood Redevelopment in partnership with the City of Gresham. At the end of this  month, REACH and AABCO will create the lactation space for the community.

Wanter listed REACH, and County’s Healthy Birth Initiative and the Black Parent Initiative as some of the programs that worked with the Port of Portland to add two lactation rooms at Portland International Airport. 

REACH and WIC’s other planned efforts to support breastfeeding/chestfeeding include focusing on changing employers’ policies and systems, and making other environmental changes. The employer-focused breastfeeding campaign is focused on normalizing breastfeeding by providing community support and encouragement for Black mothers. While at the legislative level, REACH is considering language for a bill that would address disparities in Black maternal health by requiring implicit bias training for prenatal healthcare professionals. 

Plans for a bias bill in Oregon follow similar legislation approved in California, the first state to require implicit bias training. Implicit bias is a form of bias that is created by an individual and affects judgements, decisions and behaviors. REACH’s implicit bias bill would require hospitals providing prenatal care, alternative birth centers, and primary clinics to implement an evidence-based implicit bias program as specified for all health care providers involved in follow-up patients for those facilities.

Nekisha Killings, a certified lactation consultant and prenatal equity strategist, hosted a virtual town hall after the board meeting along with REACH and WIC. Killings discussed the role of implicit bias in birth and breastfeeding/chestfeeding support.

The Board of Commissioners shared their gratitude towards programs like REACH and WIC, which have been working diligently to highlight the physical and mental benefits of breastfeeding/chestfeeding, touching on personal experience. 

“It’s difficult enough to be a new mom,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “What REACH is doing, and these programs are doing, is empowering you and supporting you.” 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal recalled her own challenges breastfeeding and said, “It can feel hopeless.” But, she noted, “the work that this team does is to change that.”

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said breastfeeding wasn’t always the most convenient or easiest thing to do, “but it is such an important thing, and everything that we can do to help support people that are breastfeeding in many ways is incredibly valuable.” 

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said, “I want to thank all of you for being here and always raising awareness about the importance of nourishing.”