DULUTH – Northeastern Minnesota's first breast milk donor depot opened Tuesday at Essentia Health, connecting mothers who produce more milk than their child can use with babies in need.

"I think it's fabulous for many moms who work hard pumping and have a freezer full of breast milk," said Molly Williams, a registered nurse at Essentia's Birthplace. "Now they can put it to good use instead of wasting it."

Several such donation sites exist in the metro area, but there's a gap across much of northern Minnesota.

"That's what this is about, filling gaps," said Linda Hsiung Dech, executive director of Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies. "Donor milk is meant to bridge a gap if a mom's supply is low or unavailable."

After donors take a blood test, milk given to the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Milk Depot will be sent to the Minnesota Milk Bank for pasteurization and distribution to hospitals and parents around the state. Pasteurization kills many harmful viruses and bacteria but preserves the helpful components of breast milk, Dech said.

"In Minnesota, where breast-feeding rates are at 90%, it clearly is the norm," Dech said. "Human milk provides the optimal nutrients for infants, and sometimes moms need a little bit of support."

Nationwide, it's hard to say just how much donor milk is needed but the demand is rising. "For a long time, donor milk was used for fragile, premature babies," said Naomi Bar-Yam, executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast in Boston. "That's still our primary clientele, but there's beginning to be demand for bigger babies as well."

Last year nearly 6.5 million ounces of donor milk were dispensed nationally, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America reported, more than double the distribution in 2013.

"Milk has been shared since the beginning of time," Bar-Yam said. "It's not just a question of how much you need but reaching who needs to be reached and helping neighbors, friends, sisters, cousins."

To that end, Dech said she wants to help other Minnesota communities set up donor depots.

"It's a really good community builder — it indicates to the community the importance of breast-feeding and breast-milk feeding," she said.

Those who want to donate in Duluth need to come from a nonsmoking home and have at least 100 ounces to give at a time, Essentia says. The milk needs to be stored in food-grade containers and be less than a year old.

The Minnesota Milk Bank will cover the cost of blood tests; donors also must fill out a written application. To schedule a drop-off at Essentia, call 218-786-4477.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496