Two Virginia women are working to create a cooperative feeding community for the digital age.
Words by Laura Drummond
Mothers struggling with mental health and returning to work outside the home. Couples with babies born via surrogacy. New parents who are cancer survivors. Grandparents raising their grandchildren. Parents of infant adoptees.
There are countless situations in which parents and caregivers don’t have the ability to produce or access human milk for their babies. Meanwhile, health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend feeding exclusively human milk to infants for at least their first six months of life—and for up to two years. Infant formula is a safe, healthy alternative, but it’s costly and in short supply.
Enter Share the Drop. The first of its kind, this mobile app matches human milk donors with recipients, similarly to how dating apps match mates. No money is ever exchanged, and there’s no cost to access the app. On a mission to “feed all the babies,” Celia Castleman and Kelly Cox of Charlottesville, Virginia, launched the app in the fall of 2022.
Castleman and Cox became friends after Cox was Castleman’s doula during the birth of her third child. As a birth doula and yoga studio owner who focused on pre- and postnatal yoga, Cox witnessed firsthand the challenges parents faced to feed their babies. “Breastfeeding can be hard for a myriad of reasons,” Cox said. “I saw women struggle with feeling inadequate.” On the flip side, Castleman, who had an excess supply of milk each time she breastfed, had a desire to donate milk to families in need but found it difficult to find them.
About seven years ago, happenstance led to a brilliant idea. Catching up on e-mails one night, Cox received a request to help source human milk, an inquiry about how to donate excess milk, and a match notification from a dating app—all within moments of each other. “I thought, if I can go on a dating app and find an ideal partner within 10 miles, why can’t families use this for milk?” Cox said.
The concept simmered in her head until the COVID pandemic forced her to close her studio, and Castleman was furloughed from her job.
“We decided there’s no time like the present, so we dove in,” said Cox. “We put all our eggs in this basket. I even sold my house to fund it.”
They couldn’t have anticipated the infant formula shortage to come, which made it even more vital to have other means of feeding babies. Community sharing of human milk is one such alternative. “Cooperative feeding is the way we survived for thousands of years,” said Cox. “We’re giving back agency to families and solving food insecurity for infants.”With the online app, the milk is given directly from donor to recipient at no cost and with no extra steps in between. “We want to make this easy, and we don’t want people paying for milk ever,” said Cox. The process is simple: just create an online profile by entering some personal information, such as zip code, age of baby, and dietary restrictions. The app then matches individuals based on the criteria entered. Matches can message each other within minutes and could potentially meet to exchange milk the very same day.
Before Share the Drop, obtaining donor milk could be difficult and costly. For those with excess milk, donating it can be time-consuming and cumbersome. There are only 28 milk banks in the United States, so those focus primarily on getting human milk to the most vulnerable infants, such as those who are premature or suffering from illness. Social media groups exist to connect donors and recipients, but they are often too far away to ever meet, so shipping costs are needed to get milk from place to place. “We want everyone to have breast milk as an option,” said Cox. “Anyone who has access to a computer can use the app.”
Share the Drop has some restrictions on who can donate milk, but it is up to the donor and recipient to determine a comfortable match. Castleman and Cox recommend people follow the four pillars of safe breast milk sharing outlined by Eats on Feets, a resource for community-based human milk sharing. These are: informed choice, donor screening, safe handling, and home pasteurization.
People who have used the app sing its praises—both for the service it provides and for the sense of community it creates. Donor Mary Beebe matched almost immediately with recipient Christina Wyant, who has twins about a week younger than Beebe’s baby. “It’s motivating to meet those little girls who I’m helping,” Beebe said. “You don’t have to produce a massive amount to help somebody out, because every little drop counts.”
“I want to hug the creators of this app,” said Wyant. “It has truly been such a gift and so transformative in our lives.”