Perspective: What the baby formula shortage tells us about the nation’s priorities
We are failing families when parents can’t find formula for their infants. Why isn’t this major news?
It should be the equivalent of a five-alarm fire: There is a critical baby formula shortage nationwide. The shortage, due to both recalls and supply chain issues impacting everything from cars to groceries, is leaving parents around the country increasingly desperate.
Last week, Fox Business reported, “During the week of April 3, approximately 31% of infant formula were out of stock nationwide, according to retail software company Datasembly.”
For parents of children in need of specialized formula, the situation is even more dire.
Chaya, a mother of five in Brooklyn, told me that her baby has an airway disorder and must have a specific type of formula mixed with a thickener. It is life-threatening for him to drink another kind of formula or to have a bottle with the wrong nipple.
She was in shock when she went to Target and found the formula shelves practically bare. The store didn’t have the nipple she needed, either.
“Neither did five other stores, or any online store except Amazon, which would take a week to arrive. We were lucky to finally find one last set in the grocery store,” she said.
She added, “Late one night, we ran out of his formula and went to the store only to find out that they had none of it left. When asking the manager when more would be coming, he had no idea. He said the suppliers have been unreliable. We ran around to two more stores before finding the formula we needed.”
Roger from Ohio shared with me how he had to FedEx his niece two canisters of Neocate, a specialized formula, because she couldn’t find it anywhere near her hometown of Boston.
Formula is out of stock across the board. In California, Jenny Erikson, a mother of five, told me, “I’m getting worried. My 8-month-old relies on it for her primary source of nutrition, and it’s been spotty finding on and off for a couple of months now. This week alone, my Amazon shipment was inexplicably delayed, and the local Costco is out of stock. How am I supposed to feed my baby if I can’t find formula?”
That worry is fueling increasing desperation. The problem is exacerbated by scared parents buying as much formula as they can within the limits set by every major retail chain. For them, it feels a lot like the beginning of the pandemic, with quantity limits set by stores on the number of canisters customers are able to purchase at a time.
One mother, who declined to give her name because she didn’t want to be shamed for hoarding, told me, “I just dropped $700 buying formula across Kroger, Target, Sam’s, Costco and Walmart. I have 11-month-old premature twins with oral motor delays and running out of formula is my nightmare scenario.”
You would think with stories like these proliferating across the country that this particular shortage would be front-page news in every media market. That it would be the first question the president and his press secretary are asked at news conferences. The possibility of massive baby formula shortages in the United States of America was inconceivable, and yet, it’s no longer.
I have heard from mothers with the resources to call relatives to ship them canisters overnight, and from ones who spend hundreds of dollars across multiple stores in order to ensure an adequate supply.
What about the mothers who cannot? Who don’t have the support system, transportation, money and time necessary to obtain the nutrition their babies need to survive? Who don’t have nearby safe and affordable human milk banks, which are exceedingly difficult and expensive to operate due to regulations about screening and safety protocols?
These are terrifying questions that are unasked by our media and unanswered by our leaders.
The last two years of COVID-19 have shown many things about our priorities as a nation, and one of the most glaring is how much of an afterthought children and families are.
Children are seen as unimportant, and thus overlooked; they’re considered an inconvenience instead of a national priority and natural resource. That’s why, in the face of an alarming shortage of the only form of food millions of American babies need, families have been met by total indifference.
Fewer than 35% of American babies are exclusively breastfed at 6 months old and just 15% of American babies are breastfed at age 1; the others rely on formula as their primary source of nutrition. Breastfeeding activists bemoan those numbers, but they are the reality, and the reality is, these babies need access to adequate nutrition.
In allowing this to happen, we have abandoned American parents, who are frantically combing empty formula shelves in stores nationwide. They’ve been left to figure this out on their own, and conversations about DIY formula, a dangerous proposition, are popping up in parenting social media spaces. Formula is a modern miracle, with nutrients carefully calibrated for what babies need to grow and thrive.
The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. America is, quite simply, not measuring up.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”