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Coffee & Milk
"Lactivist" Lorig Charkoudian '95 went to Starbucks for a decaf. Instead, she found a cause.

By Cindy Chang

When Lorig Charkoudian ’95 took a break from running errands to grab a decaf at Starbucks one summer afternoon in 2004, she never dreamed that the routine pit stop would launch her on a crusade to reform the international coffee giant.

A month later, she would be occupying a chair across from CNN’s Anderson Cooper. But on that July day at the coffee shop, she was just another tired suburban mom with a full-time job and a seemingly bottomless to-do list. She sat down at a table with her coffee. Her 14-month-old daughter Aline was thirsty too. Though the baby had mostly switched over to solid foods, she still nursed occasionally.

When a manager came over and asked Charkoudian to either nurse in the bathroom or cover the baby’s head with a blanket, she wasn’t sure if she’d heard right. There was only one other customer in the Silver Spring, Md., store, and his view of her was obscured by a potted plant. He certainly hadn’t complained.

Charkoudian asked the manager to repeat his request. Then she gave him her coffee and asked for her money back. Then she demanded an explanation—first from him, then from his superiors.

That was just the beginning. Maryland law, Charkoudian discovered in an Internet search, protects a mother’s right to breastfeed at private businesses like Starbucks. She worked her way up the management chain, demanding that Starbucks train all its employees to comply with the Maryland law.

With a lifetime of social activism under her belt and a career as the executive director of a community mediation nonprofit, she knew how to mobilize support for her cause, quickly launching a Web site, www.nurseatstarbucks.org.

A few weeks after her encounter with the manager, Charkoudian was back at the Silver Spring Starbucks with a group of mothers, fathers, friends and babies numbering about 100. They carried signs that said: “What’s more natural than coffee and milk?” and “Can you drink your latte in the bathroom? I’m trying to breastfeed.” Naturally, the little ones nursed.
Mothers in Austin, Texas, and Knoxville, Tenn., followed with nurse-ins at their local Starbuckses.

Once Starbucks officials got wind of the planned nurse-in and the publicity that would likely result, Charkoudian says, they relented, informing her that they would implement the Maryland employee training.

But Charkoudian went forward with the nurse-in because she had a larger, still unaccomplished goal. She wanted Starbucks to announce a national policy that it would not ask nursing mothers to move or cover up, even in the dozen or so states that didn’t have legal protections on the books.

“When you respond to breastfeeding as though it’s shameful and needs to be hidden, that’s going to decrease the amount of breastfeeding. The less people see it, the less common it is, and the less people will do it,” says Charkoudian.

Charkoudian’s Starbucks campaign was just one salvo in a battle that in the last decade or so has increasingly taken the public stage with the enactment of state breastfeeding laws and the activism of advocacy groups and individual mothers like Charkoudian.

In June 2005, after Barbara Walters commented on her morning talk show “The View” that the sight of a breastfeeding mother on an airplane made her uncomfortable, 200 protestors staged a nurse-in at ABC headquarters in New York.

In addition to nurse-ins targeted at specific businesses, breastfeeding activists—dubbed “lactivists”—routinely organize nurse-outs, such as the 2003 event on a Gold Line train near Pasadena, Calif., to underscore their right to nurse in public places such as parks and buses.
Kasey Madden, an Illinois mother of three, convinced state lawmakers to take up her cause after she was told by an employee at her health club that she could only nurse her baby in a restricted area. In August 2004, Illinois passed legislation protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed her baby “in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be.”

Ohio passed a similar bill last June after a mother in the southwest part of the state sued Wal-Mart for asking her to leave the store to nurse her baby. “It was a very validating moment for me,” says Madden. “I’d been feeling like some sort of freak. Now I had all these state senators nodding their heads while I was talking, and dozens signed on as sponsors. It was so exciting to have people say, ‘Of course you should be able to do that for your baby. Of course a breastfed baby should enjoy the same rights as a bottle-fed baby.’”

No one seriously disputes the health benefits of breastfeeding. Mother’s milk helps protect the baby against diarrhea, ear infections, meningitis and other ailments. Nursing also confers health benefits on the mother into old age, including a reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer and possibly a decreased risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends an exclusive diet of breast milk for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for the first year and beyond, estimates that the U.S. could save $3.6 billion in health care costs if more babies were breastfed.

According to a federal study conducted in 2004, the overall breastfeeding rate was about 71 percent. But the rates decreased as infants matured, with 35 percent of six-month-olds receiving some breast milk and only 16 percent of one-year-olds still nursing.

Breastfeeding rates have risen dramatically since the 1970s, when they were as low as 25 percent, but they still fall short of the federal government’s 2010 Healthy People goals: 75 percent initiation rates, 50 percent of six-month-olds and 25 percent of one-year-olds nursing.
“It’s a health choice first. Because you are breastfeeding, your lifestyle will be different, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be employed or do other things,” says Mary Lofton, a spokeswoman for the breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League International.

To opponents of public breastfeeding, the question is not whether nursing is a healthy choice but whether mothers should do it in close proximity to strangers who feel uncomfortable seeing a baby sucking on a breast.

“Overt public breastfeeding makes lots of people uncomfortable, so this is less about nursing than about imposing a belief system on those who do not share her views,” Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post wrote in response to Charkoudian’s assertion that anyone who is offended by a breastfeeding mother should look away or move.

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams said on the Anderson Cooper 360° show on CNN, where he was a guest with Charkoudian:

“I think there are areas where you can go—not necessarily the bathroom … where it is not obvious as to what you’re doing if you don’t have anything that is available to you to disguise exactly what you’re doing.”

But breastfeeding advocates believe that a dirty look or a negative comment from a bystander can be enough to discourage a woman from nursing. Even with 39 states providing some form of legal protection for breastfeeding mothers, the fear of nursing in public keeps some mothers from nursing at all, ultimately exacting a public health cost, they say.

“Even though there is the law, people still find there is a barrier. It’s real and it’s subtle. There are microcultures and macrocultures that also subtlely make you feel more or less comfortable with breastfeeding in public,” says Wendelin Slusser, a pediatrician who is director of the Breastfeeding Resource Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Charkoudian, a 33-year-old former Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) president with a Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, is now pregnant with her second child. She is looking forward to the age-old ritual of bonding with the baby at her breast—and maybe even nursing the new arrival at the Silver Spring Starbucks.

Training its Maryland workers in the state breastfeeding legislation was the last concession that Starbucks made to Charkoudian. A spokeswoman says that the company still does not have a national policy on breastfeeding in its stores, though it “absolutely complies with all state and local laws” and “definitely welcomes nursing mothers.”

For Charkoudian, the battle was never just about Starbucks. It was about calling attention to the rights of breastfeeding mothers and the benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child. With The Washington Post write-ups and the CNN interview, the nurse-ins in Texas and Tennessee and the mothers who still e-mail her for advice because they know her as the woman who took on Starbucks, she certainly appears to have accomplished that.

“What I’m hoping is that because there have been other things that made the press recently, I’m hoping that there’s a cultural shift towards more acceptance of women breastfeeding in public, which will lead to more breastfeeding overall, and healthier babies and mothers,” says Charkoudian.

The Right to Breastfeed

• Thirty-nine states provide some kind of legal protection for breastfeeding mothers. These rights vary, often addressing jury duty or breastfeeding in the workplace, as well as the right to breastfeed in public.

• Most state breastfeeding legislation was passed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 1994, only five states had breastfeeding legislation.

• A 1999 federal bill allows women to breastfeed in federal buildings or on federal property, such as museums, courthouses and national parks. Federal lawmakers have unsuccessfully proposed amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include breastfeeding rights.

• In California, a mother may breastfeed at any public or private place where she and the child are “authorized to be present.” The state also requires hospitals to provide lactation consultants to new mothers, exempts breastfeeding mothers from jury service and requires employers to provide break time and a private space for a mother to use a breast pump.

• The 11 states that do not have breastfeeding legislation are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. Many of those states have bills pending.

Sources: La Leche League International; Congressional Research Service
©Copyright 2006
by Pomona College
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