Rep. Lauren Underwood and Sen. Tammy Duckworth announced plans on Saturday to introduce legislation that would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide lactating people with more financial support following disasters.
The Delivering Essentials to Mothers Amid Natural Disasters Act, or DEMAND Act, calls for FEMA to make breast pumps and other lactation supplies, as well as services by lactation support specialists, eligible for financial assistance. It would also direct FEMA to define lactation support providers to include lactation consultants, breastfeeding counselors, breastfeeding peer counselors and lactation educators.
“The aftermath of a disaster is a distressing, stressful, confusing, difficult time, and we know that for many communities their health status can be extremely poor,” Underwood told The 19th ahead of the bill’s announcement. The bill, which the lawmakers plan to introduce Tuesday, seeks to “streamline and standardize the process for those seeking breastfeeding equipment, and to also bolster FEMA’s ability to carry out its mission on the ground.”
Currently FEMA may provide funds to families for them to purchase baby formula, Underwood said. People can also apply for “Other Needs Assistance” that is specifically for medical expenses. Underwood said she has heard from advocacy organizations and parents about inconsistencies with getting access to the lactation devices or services they may need and confusion about navigating the application process. The bill would establish clear guidance to smooth this process.
In a statement to The 19th, FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg said the organization continues to identify new ways to remove barriers to disaster assistance. “Disaster response is locally executed, state managed and federally supported,” Rothenberg said. “We support our government and non-profit partners to ensure survivors have the resources needed to recover, which can include federal assistance reimbursements for recovery operations and medical or other expenses caused by disasters.”
Formula is available for reimbursement, but many families may not be able to or want to give it to their babies, said Tina Sherman, the senior campaign director for maternal justice with MomsRising, one of several advocacy groups endorsing the legislation. Sherman said her group’s support for the legislation was not to promote one form of feeding over another, as much as to expand options for all parents.
Research indicates that while formula is a safe and nutritious supplement, human milk contains a unique mix of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other essentials that help protect more vulnerable babies from diseases and infections. Such protection is especially important during natural disasters “when contaminated water and unsanitary environments can increase the risk of disease,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, not all formulas are equal. Babies born with dairy allergies or sensitivities, for instance, require a special product that may not easily be found during a crisis.
“I think it’s important as a policy point of view that we do everything that we can to really create a supportive and safe environment for the people who choose to and who are able to breastfeed,” Underwood said.
Women, people of color, low-income people and LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately affected by climate disasters and environmental hazards, and their needs are not always centered in disaster preparation. In addition to the disproportionate effects, people of color and more vulnerable communities tend to face more barriers to applying for and receiving federal aid.
Since joining Congress in 2019, Underwood has been a champion for maternal health issues, particularly among Black women. She and Duckworth, both Democrats from Illinois, also sponsored legislation as part of the “Momnibus” package aimed at boosting pregnancy and postpartum care services, and addressing the prevalence of pregnancy-related deaths. The first of those 12 bills was signed by President Joe Biden in November.
The two-page DEMAND Act, while not part of the Momnibus, is part of a continuation of Underwood’s efforts to expand access to health services, she said.
“I think about my work in this lane and about equity and helping underserved populations in the aftermath of these disasters, and how we can make sure that folks aren’t getting left behind,” Underwood said. “I think that there is no shortage of problems that we can help to solve.”