OPINION: U.S baby formula shortage burdens families


Amelia Howell

Across the nation infant formula is in short supply, leaving caregivers with limited alternatives.

Baby formula is an important source of nutrients for millions of babies across America. Due to a product recall in May 2022 by an Abbott Nutrition facility, a large producer of baby formula in the U.S., formula is low in supply. Formula is a necessity for numerous parents and caregivers all throughout America, yet due to systemic racism, Black families are especially struggling. 

Formula provides infants with proteins and minerals that assist them in their growth and development and without them, parents are attempting to find dangerous solutions. Some parents have opted to water down formula, which is an unadvised decision. According to Dr. Lisa Gaw, a pediatrician for Texas Children’s Urgent Care, diluting formula is not a safe solution as it could lead to contamination and insufficient nutrition, causing a baby to fall ill. Without the necessary nutrients that formula supplies, babies are more prone to facing significant short and long-term health complications, including dehydration, behavioral issues and developmental delays. 

While the shortage is negatively affecting multiple groups across the nation, Black mothers and families are impacted the most as breastfeeding is a difficult task. According to the CDC, the ratio of Black infants who are ever breastfed is 75.5%, which is significantly lower than other groups, with Hispanic at 85%, White 85.3% and Asian 92.4%. This unfortunate trend stems from unsupportive work policies, not having parental leave from low-wage jobs and cultural norms. Similarly, the CDC has found that infants enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children have a lesser chance of being breastfed than infants not enrolled in the federal program. Many infants’ parents depend on formula and with the ongoing formula shortage, they are desperate for any kind of solution.

Racist undertones of the baby formula industry have existed for over a hundred years. According to a study on the differences in breastfeeding between Black and non-Black mothers, Dr. Amira Roess, professor at George Mason University, reported racial disparity has historic roots, where breastfeeding was viewed as a task for impoverished women. Most slave owners had Black wet nurses, women whose jobs were to breastfeed children in the stead of a child’s parent, resulting in the deaths of numerous enslaved children. The breast milk those children needed were given to their white counterparts and instead bottle fed a mix of contaminated water and dry milk. 

White people throughout history have stolen both breast milk and lives from Black people. Without any regard for the enslaved, Black women were robbed of a chance to care for their own children. Innocent children were forced to suffer and die painfully as their mothers were helpless. While naturally occurring, the ability to breastfeed one’s own child was once a blessing for certain Black women.

When baby formula was introduced, it was immediately marketed to Black people. According to The Washington Post, during the 1940s, formula and other breast milk alternatives were promoted by healthcare workers and pediatricians, who were often bribed for these promotions. Black women were targeted by white-run formula companies. The Fultz quadruplets were the first Black children advertised in formula commercials in 1946. Famous for being the first recorded African-American quadruplets, they helped to promote the formula they were advertised with. 

Following this, nearly all ads for formula featured Black children while those for breastfeeding depicted predominantly white people in order to perpetuate two common stereotypes: the nurturing white mother and the abusive Black mother, more commonly referred to as a “mammy.” The distinction of characters helped to push Black women further away from breastfeeding as it was a practice society associated with only white people. 

Breastfeeding, a natural and human act, was taken from Black people. They were dehumanized to a point where they could not care for their own children without being judged. White people stole that right from them and profited off of it. Breastfeeding was only promoted for Black people when it was used to feed white children, proving that a Black person would only retain rights that could help white individuals. 

Many Black women are unable to rely on breastfeeding because of socioeconomic pressure. A deep-rooted connection between racism and poverty has left Black mothers commonly working low-income jobs. Black mothers were left with limited time to breastfeed and no space to store their breast milk. Many worked far away from their infants, sometimes leading to less breast milk being produced. Black mothers have been disadvantaged for hundreds of years due to various racist factors, causing many to rely more on formula compared to other families. 

According to Javier Simon, journalist and personal finance advisor, parents can expect to spend anywhere from $821.25 to $2,920 on formula within the first year of a baby being born. The Pew Research Center reported Black people make roughly $15 an hour. When considering inflation, taxes, rent, groceries and other expenses, formula is a difficult resource for poorer individuals to consistently provide. Throughout history, Black people have suffered at the hands of American society. They have been scorned and forced into poverty only to also have to rely on expensive baby formula to feed their children rather than the natural resources they possess. 

While many attempt to minimize the effects of the formula shortage by expressing the benefits of breastfeeding, privileged individuals fail to acknowledge that breastfeeding is a difficult task for numerous mothers and practically impossible for others. Black parents and caregivers are struggling through this enduring time, and with a long history of facing societal oppression, are being hit the hardest by the formula shortage. 

Black parents’ struggles reflect the longstanding effect White supremacy has had on American society, and U.S citizens should work to do away with it. Racist laws and policies stay standing that continue to oppress Black people. Babies and toddlers are getting sick, with some dying due to the crisis and, until the formula shortage is over, everyone can stay hopeful and work to support families through an enduring time.