Editor’s Note: Julia Callahan lives in Macon, Georgia with her fiancé and their two children. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
President Joe Biden said this week that a massive shipment of infant formula is being flown into the United States from Switzerland. Meanwhile, Abbott Laboratories announced it will import baby formula from its Spanish facilities this month to boost supplies of its product in the United States.
Weeks into the crisis over the infant formula shortage, it seems as if emergency measures to make up the shortfall are announced with regularity. And still, the grocery store aisles in Macon, Georgia – the small city where I live and buy my newborn’s formula – are as empty as ever.
The birth of my baby three months ago should have been one of the happiest times of my life. Instead, the months that have followed the arrival of my daughter, Berlin, have been filled with anxiety, as I struggle each day to figure out how I will feed her.
As the mother of a newborn, there’s nothing quite as desperate as the feeling you get seeing empty grocery shelves where there used to be row after row of infant formula. As one of the millions of parents affected by the baby formula shortage, I’ve been heartened by the news that the government has arranged for supplies to be flown in from Europe and Australia.
I was glad to hear earlier this month that production is ramping up again at the facility run by Abbott Nutrition, the infant formula factory whose temporary closure because of contamination at its Michigan plant helped throw the entire US baby formula market into chaos.
But it seems as if every upbeat development is followed by bad news: Abbott announced late Wednesday that damage from severe storms was forcing them to shut down the plant again, before those increased supplies ever made their way grocery shelves.
People often tell moms like me that we should just breastfeed – as if the solution were always that simple.
My daughter was born with a lip tie, a thin bit of tissue under her lip that makes nursing almost impossible. She can’t get the nutrients she needs through breastfeeding alone. And, of course, there are plenty of other reasons why parents may choose to – or may need to – rely on formula to feed their children. That means that there are millions of families that have been made anxious and vulnerable by the ongoing shortage.
When I get down to just a couple days’ supply of formula, it’s hard not to panic. I’ve taken to saving half-full bottles after Berlin finishes feeding because I don’t dare waste a drop of formula. Fortunately, I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve completely run out, but there have been a few times when I’ve come close. On top of wildly fluctuating postpartum emotions, the stress from the formula shortage has made the past three months unbelievably challenging.
Back in March, when Berlin was born, the infant formula supply shortage had just begun. I could generally find infant formula without too much difficulty, and I could readily stock up on what I needed. But as the weeks have gone by, it’s gotten harder and harder. And right now, quite honestly, is the worst it’s ever been.
Like over six million Americans my family receives assistance from the “Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program known as WIC, which provides vouchers that allow low-income Americans to purchase food. In fact, half to two-thirds of all formula purchases are through WIC vouchers. But WIC limits which formula we can purchase, which means we have to work even harder to find the brand we need to feed our babies. Low income families are hardest hit in an already challenging national crisis.
When I go to the grocery store at 8 a.m. each day, there are already dozens of other frantic mothers scanning the shelves in search of their baby’s formula brand. I have had to learn which days my local store gets its shipments and I try to show up on those days. If I arrive later than noon, I can be certain that the shelves will be empty.
Social media has been a big help: Some moms post on Facebook when they’ve found formula at a store to alert the other mothers, who know to drop everything and come running. If you hear that there is formula at a given store, you have to act fast. Once, I went out to the various stores in my community looking for formula almost every day for a week and came home empty-handed each time. I ended up having to get some formula from another mom in a local Facebook group.
A 12.5 ounce can of powder formula that I mix with water for Berlin’s feedings lasts just a few days, and she will go through those cans more quickly as she gets bigger and develops a bigger appetite, making the shortage issue more worrisome the longer it goes on. I’ve found multiple mothers reselling baby formula on Facebook, many of whom inflate the price from $17 to $25. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position not to have to support that behavior, but know many moms who have run out of options and pay the higher prices from resellers.
Moms hustling to stretch a buck by reselling formula is nothing, however, compared to corporate greed in this crisis. I’ve been learning a lot about the infant formula industry recently, and have been shocked to discover that just four corporations control 90% of our nation’s formula supply. Abbott, which is one of the four, stopped production over serious health and safety allegations, which threw the entire market into a tailspin.
Policies that allow just a few corporations to dominate essential industries hurt families, especially lower-income families like mine. Recently, Democrats in the House, along with 12 Republican members, passed a bill to address the current shortage and prevent future shortages from happening. To my great disappointment, 192 Republicans voted against the much needed assistance, including Georgia’s entire Republican delegation in the House.
I was glad to see the Biden administration invoke the Defense Production Act to help domestic manufacturers produce more. Although I haven’t seen much change on our grocery store shelves, I’m hopeful they will be stocked soon.
But I’m also disappointed that our government wasn’t better prepared to protect the most vulnerable people in our country. We should have never allowed just four corporations to control such a big share of the market for baby formula, making the health and well-being of our children secondary to corporate profits.
Even when the current crisis is over, the bigger problem will remain and shortages like this will happen again. This terrible system needs to be overhauled. Unfortunately for me, change won’t happen until long after Berlin is weaned.
This crisis has robbed me of one of the most blessed times a mother has with her child, holding her, rocking her, comforting her, knowing that my beautiful precious baby is in my loving care, and that I will protect her from all harm.
Because of this shortage in baby formula, I cannot be sure at this moment that I can protect her from hunger. In this country of prosperity and plenty, that’s truly a national scandal.