Amber Hodges, 29, really wanted to breastfeed.
“I tried and tried,’’ says Hodges, who lives in Detroit, Michigan with her eight-month old daughter, Amira.
Hodges was unable to nurse for part of her hospital stay after she was put on bed rest and her daughter was taken to the nursery. And though the hospital offered her lactation support, Hodges had difficulty producing enough milk when she returned home.
So she maintained a steady supply of formula. It wasn’t until the beginning of May that she encountered empty store shelves for the first time.
With little formula left at home, Hodges took a few hours off her job as a quality control analyst and went searching. Target had a note where cans of formula should have been, informing shoppers about a shortage. Walmart and BuyBuy Baby also were out of the brand Hodges needed.
“I was crying… I had chills in my body because I have to feed my 8-month old,” she said. “How did it get so bad?’’
Like so many recent crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the current surge in inflation, the nation’s baby formula shortage has been revealing.
Many of us learned for the first time that four companies produce roughly 90% of what is a vital source of nutrition for the youngest Americans. We found out that the temporary shuttering of a single formula factory in Michigan could cause a shortfall so severe, it sparked a national panic.
And we’ve seen mothers from all backgrounds grapple with the fear that they may not be able to ensure their children have enough to eat.
But lower-income women rely on formula more than other mothers. Formula is often the only option for women, disproportionately Black and Brown, who are concentrated in lower-paying jobs that may not provide the space or flexibility to pump breast milk while at work.
And formula is critical for Black women who, because of historic injustices and systemic biases and barriers that persist, breast feed far less than their peers.
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For many of those moms, the shortage has been particularly challenging.
“At the end of the day this Abbott recall really has impacted all parents of formula fed infants, but it magnifies the disparities that have long existed,” says Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, the nonprofit advocacy arm of WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) which purchases 56% of baby formula in the U.S.
“Now it’s a full-time job to search for formula,” Dittmeier says, “but lower income families are not going to have the time, especially if they’re working multiple jobs.”
Some mothers are having to visit several stores,…