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Elke Pascoe, the owner of Little Oak, risked everything to start her business but wanted to be able to provide babies with an alternative to cow's milk formulas

A busy mum-of-two has revealed how she became a major player in the infant formula business after her children had intense reactions to cow's milk products.

Elke Pascoe, the owner of Little Oak, risked everything to start her business after discovering goat's milk to be more similar to human milk and less likely to trigger painful reactions in children.

The 41-year-old single mum told FEMAIL she was anxious take a gamble, pouring her life's savings, time and energy into the business but had to do it 'for the children'.

Not just for her own, who now benefit from her goat's milk kids range and knowledge around dairy allergies but for the babies that would continue to suffer.

'I wanted to make a difference for children and their parents, so they don't have to face pain and discomfort every day because they don't have access to good food.

'Good nutrition shouldn't just be for the wealthy families in the eastern suburbs,' she said. 

Her first product hit the shelves in 2018, and she couldn't be more proud. 

'My life long dream is to make sure no child goes to bed hungry,' she said. 

This passion has driven her to make the best product possible, take a cut on margins and stay firm when people tell her she could make millions by adding a cow's milk formula to her range.

The mum-of-two worked in pharmaceuticals and health but it wasn't until both of her kids suffered with reaction to infant formula that she looked into what was in it

Now she sells 200 tonnes of formula a year and receives praise from parents for helping them feed their baby without having to worry about painful side-effects many experience to dairy

'People constantly try to tell me to chase the money on offer with cow's milk formula, but I am not in this for my share of those billions, I want to make something that I would happily give to my kids.'

'Sure we don't make hundreds of millions of dollars - but we are damn proud of our product, and after all we are talking about babies and toddlers and they deserve us to do our best.' 

She leaned on her former career in healthcare, pharmaceuticals and consulting to start the company, feeding her wage into her fledgling company and using contacts in the field to make sure she did everything right.

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'It is a very regulated industry, so I had to make sure we followed all of the rules while still making a new product that could make a difference,' she said. 

The company's infant formula currently costs six times as much as their competitors' to make, but is sold for the same price in store.

'It isn't about the margins, we are feeding the most vulnerable people in society, so that financial loss to us is a conscious decision because we won't cut quality,' she said.

'It is critically important to me that everyone has aspect to food for their children, I don't want to put a high-end price on my product so that people in need can't afford it,' she said. 

Her son Charlie suffered from skin conditions as a baby, she looked at what he was eating after despairing over the dozens of creams doctors recommended she use on him

The youngster's face is now clear - and according to Elke the family avoid cow's milk and associated products, drinking goat's milk at home

She now owns her own goat farm, in New Zealand, has about 8000 goats across two properties and makes over 200 tonnes of formula each year.

And she is constantly contacted by parents thanking her for helping them tackle their kid's skin reactions and digestive issues at the source. 

'People will share pictures of their kids covered in eczema, or with suspended little bellies and dull eyes.' she said.

'Then follow up with a bright-eyed happy and healthy picture three weeks later. And it is a reminder of who we are doing this for when things get tough,' she said. 

Almost two years of research went into coming up with the formula, which is 'as raw' as possible.

This was on top of the years of research Elke did into why children often react to the formulas that saturated the market. 

'We decided on goat's milk to make out formula, because we wanted something infinitely better, and the fats and proteins in it are more closely aligned to our own so it doesn't need as much processing,' she said.

Elke decided the best way to insure she had a lasting, high-quality supply of goat milk was to have a farm. These are some of her 8000 goats in New Zealand

'For example taurine which is important for brain development is naturally occurring in goat's milk, where as the additive they put in cow's based formula is more closely related to Red Bull,' she said.

'I was shocked when I first found that out.' 

The seeds for the business were planted by Elke's eldest daughter, who after struggling to digest regular formula, was moved to a basic goat's milk option.

'She constantly had colic, a sore tummy and diarrhea, it was terrible,' she said. 

But it wasn't until her second child was 18-months-old that the mum really started digging into the cause of his painful skin conditions and general discomfort.

'I was constantly at the pharmacy, or the doctors, being told to buy more products to put on his skin to help him,' she said.

'When it dawned on me that I should be looking at what he is eating, not just adding another cream every time there was a new reaction.'

And when she looked into the ingredients in his baby formula she was left rattled.

'From palm oil to multi-dexterin, it was packed with ingredients I wouldn't want to give my child. And not just one formula but all of the formulas on the market,' she said.  

Seeing her sweet little boy in pain changed everything.

'We now only have goats milk at home and it has made a huge difference,' she said.

'In fact when the kids stay somewhere else and are given cow's milk they complain they are itchy and even break out,' she said.

The mum explained that humans have been drinking goat's milk for a thousand years, with cows milk becoming more popular in the last hundred years. 

'The reality is we struggle to digest it. Research shows that eight in ten Asian children are lactose intolerant,' she said.

'We also know that breast milk is different for each animal, on the human scale we have our own milk, then polar bear milk, whale milk and goat's milk - way on the other end is cow's milk,' she said.

Elke and her team now make 200 tonnes of the formula each year

Little Oak now grows 'at the same trajectory' as Elke's children, with age-appropriate snacks like cheese sticks and yoghurt being added to the range as they come on to her kids' radars.

But the road to running a successful company, being up against big-pharma hasn't been easy.

'Things were really financially tight for a while,' she said.

'I separated from my husband before I started so finances were a huge consideration. 

But Elke knew she had the opportunity to make the world better and end suffering for millions of children.

So she worked full time, prioritised putting food on the table and paying bills, before pouring the rest of her cash into Little Oak.

The Sydney-based mum says she dreams of a world where no child goes to bed hungry and families don't have to sacrifice quality food because of financial restraints

She spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the company and 'functioned on very little sleep' to make her vision reality.

'Being a parent helped me, in many ways, but mostly because you learn how to exist on very little sleep,' she said.

Now her children are older, she has left her other job to concentrate on her company she faces a new set of challenges: stakeholders.

'I wouldn't do anything different, but I do take my hat off to all of the single working parents out there, it is a tough role to fill,' she said.

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Baby formula shortage fueling spike in milk bank interest

The U.S. baby formula shortage has sparked a surge of interest at milk banks around the U.S. with some mothers offering to donate breast milk and desperate parents calling to see if it’s a solution to keep their babies fed.

It’s a pathway that won’t work for every formula-fed baby, especially those with special dietary needs, and it comes with challenges because the country’s dozens of nonprofit milk banks prioritize feeding medically fragile infants. The organizations collect milk from mothers and process it, including through pasteurization, then work with hospitals to distribute it.

The shortage stemmed from a safety recall and supply disruptions and has captured national attention with panicked parents looking to swap and buy formula online and President Joe Biden urging manufacturers to increase production and discussing with retailers how they could restock shelves to meet regional disparities. Biden’s administration also said Friday that formula maker Abbott Laboratories committed to give rebates through August for a food stamp-like program that helps women, infants and children called WIC.

At the Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, based in Newton, Massachusetts, interest in donating and receiving milk because of the shortage has spiked. Typically, the milk bank gets about 30-50 calls a month from people looking to donate. On Thursday alone, 35 calls came in from potential donors, said Deborah Youngblood, the bank’s executive director.

“It’s interesting the first sort of response that we got was from potential donors — so people responding to the formula shortage with sort of an amazing, compassionate response of how can I be part of the solution?” she said.

Youngblood was talking about people like Kayla Gillespie, a 38-year-old mother of three from Hays, Kansas. Gillespie first donated to the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver six years ago, giving 18 gallons (68 liters) after the birth of her first child, and wasn’t planning to do it again.

“I thought 18 gallons was sufficient for one person,” she said. “If I hadn’t heard of the shortage, I wouldn’t be going through the process again, just because I have three kids and it’s a little chaotic around here.”

She has pledged at least 150 ounces of her milk, but said she expects to give much more than that.

“I’m vey blessed with being able to produce milk, so I just felt I needed to do something,” she said.

She said in the past she has shipped her frozen milk in special containers to Denver, but this time, her local hospital is taking the donations and she can just drop them off.

It’s not just donors, though. Parents desperately seeking nutrition for their babies are pursuing milk banks as well.

At the Massachusetts milk bank, about 30 people called looking for milk because they couldn’t find their baby’s usual formula, Youngblood said. That’s up from nearly no calls at all, since the milk bank typically serves hospitals.

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, an accrediting organization for nonprofit milk banks, is seeing a “major increase” in demand, according to Lindsay Groff, the group’s executive director. She estimates inquiries from parents seeking to fill the formula gap are up 20% in recent days.

Groff called the shortage a “crisis” and said it’s not as simple as parents just supplementing with donated human milk, because the vast majority of those supplies are earmarked for babies with medical conditions.

“If people can donate, now would be the time because when we have more of an inventory we can look beyond the medically fragile,” she said.

Parents are also turning to online breastmilk-swapping forums to meet their babies’ needs.

Amanda Kastelein, a mother of three from Middlebury, Connecticut, has been supplementing the special formula she needs for 10-month-old Emerson with breast milk from a mom she found on a peer-to-peer Facebook page called Human Milk 4 Human Babies.

Kastelein stopped breastfeeding after getting recurring infections, but tried to begin re-lactating in March after the formula recall, with little success.

“Emerson is allergic to most of the formulas, so it’s been difficult to find something he’s not allergic to,” she said.

In stepped Hannah Breton of Naugatuck, Connecticut, who had been producing more milk than her 2 1/2-month-old son needs. She’s been giving Kastelein about 60 ounces of milk every two weeks. That’s enough to supplement her formula supply and keep Emerson fed.

“She asked a bunch of questions — what medications I’m taking, if any, that kind of thing,” Breton said. “So we decided, ‘OK, that’s perfect.’ So, she comes by every couple weeks and picks up the milk I’ve been saving for her.”

“I do feel helpful,” she added. “It’s exciting and rewarding that I can give to a mom that can’t find what she’s looking for, and if her son can’t take formula, I mean, it’s scary.

Rebecca Heinrich, director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Colorado, advises those looking for milk that searching for donors on their own can carry risks.

“We want to make sure that these moms are being as safe as they can and meeting the needs of their infant, so consulting with their health-care provider on how to meet those needs is the best way to go,” she said.

The shortage creates difficulties particularly for lower-income families after the recall by formula maker Abbott, stemming from contamination concerns. The recall depleted many brands covered by WIC, a federal program like food stamps serving women, infants and children, though it now permits brand substitutes.

On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to the head of Abbott Laboratories expressing what he called his “grave concern regarding the accessibility of safe infant formula,” noting Abbott holds infant formula contracts in the federal WIC program. Vilsack asked that Abbott continue a program that provides rebates for alternative products including formula for competitive brands, which it had been doing on a month-to-month basis. The White House said Friday Abbott committed to the rebates through the end of August.

The Biden administration said it’s working with states to make it easier for WIC recipients to buy different sizes of formula that their benefits might not currently cover.

Abbott has said that pending Food and Drug Administration approval, it could restart a manufacturing site “within two weeks.”

The company would begin by producing EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas and then start production of Similac and other formulas. Once production begins, it would take six to eight weeks for the formula to be available on shelves.

On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their output and streamline paperwork to allow more imports.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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