The shortage of baby food underscores racial differences

COLUMBIA, MD. – Capri Isidoro broke down in tears as she sat in a chair in a lactation consultant’s office.

The mother-of-two has struggled to breastfeed her 1-month-old daughter since birth when the hospital first gave her formula without asking her if she wanted to breastfeed.

Now, with massive safety recalls and supply disruptions causing shortages in the United States, she also can’t find the specific formula to help with her baby’s bloating.

“It’s so sad. It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” said Isidoro, who lives in Ellicott City, a suburb of Baltimore. “We need formula for our child, and where is that formula going to come from?”

As parents across the United States struggle to find formulas to feed their children, the pain is particularly acute among Black and Hispanic women. Black women have historically faced barriers to breastfeeding, including a lack of hospital breastfeeding support, increased pressure on infant formula, and cultural barriers. It’s one of many inequalities for black mothers : They are far more likely to die from pregnancy complicationsand less likely that their concerns about pain will be taken seriously by doctors.


Low-income families also face a particular struggle: They buy the bulk of US infant formula. Experts worry that small neighborhood grocery stores that serve these vulnerable populations aren’t restocking as much as the larger retail outlets and that some of these families don’t have the resources or means to seek formulas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of black women and 23% of Hispanic women exclusively breastfeed for six months, compared to 29% of white women. The overall rate is 26%. Hospitals that promote breastfeeding and general breastfeeding support are less common in black neighborhoods, according to the CDC.

The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses also says Hispanic and black women classified as low-wage workers had less access to breastfeeding support in their workplaces.

Racial differences stretch far back into American history. The demands of slave labor prevented mothers from breastfeeding their children, and slave owners separated mothers from their own babies so that they could serve as wet nurses, or women who breastfeed other women’s children.


In the 1950s, racist commercials falsely promoted infant formula as a superior source of nutrition. And studies continue to show that black mothers are more likely to receive in-hospital infant formula induction than white mothers, which is what happened to Isidoro after her emergency caesarean.

Doctors say the introduction of formula means the baby needs less nourishment from its mother, reducing milk supply as the breast isn’t stimulated enough to produce it.

Andrea Freeman, author of the book Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice, said these mothers still don’t get the support they need when it comes to choosing whether to breastfeed or use formula. They may also have jobs that don’t provide the time and space needed to breastfeed or express milk, Freeman said.

“Nobody takes responsibility for guiding families of color towards formula and making people rely on it and depriving them of choice for so many years. And then when it falls apart, there’s not really any credit or accountability,” Freeman said.


Breastfeeding practices are often influenced by previous generations, with some studies suggesting better outcomes for mothers who were breastfed as babies.

Kate Bauer, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said she began hearing in February from Black and Hispanic families in Detroit and Grand Rapids who were feeling stuck after realizing that smaller ones Grocery stores ran out of formula.

Some have been told to go to the local office of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, the federal program that supports low-income expecting and young mothers. Between 50% and 65% of formula in the US is purchased through the program.

“For some mothers, visiting the WIC office is like a day-long errand,” Bauer said.

She also said she fears mothers are becoming desperate enough to try foods not recommended for babies under 6 months.


Yury Navas, a Salvadoran immigrant who works in a restaurant and lives in Laurel, Maryland, says she hasn’t been able to produce enough breast milk and after others had difficulty finding the right formula for her nearly 3-month-old Finding baby Jose Ismael vomiting, diarrhea and causing discomfort.

They once drove half an hour to a store where workers told them they had the guy she needed, but by the time they got there he was gone. Her husband goes out around midnight every night to search pharmacies.

“It’s so hard to find that guy,” she said, saying that sometimes they run out before they can secure more formula. “The baby will cry and cry, so let’s give him rice water.”

The other day she was on her last container and called an advocacy group who said they would try to get her some at an appointment in five days. But the group could not guarantee anything.

Some moms have turned to social media and even befriended other locals to cast a wider net while shopping.


In Miami, Denise Castro, who owns a construction company, started a virtual group to support new moms during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now also begun helping moms get the formula they need.

“Most of the mothers we’ve helped are black and Latina,” Castro said, adding that many of them are back to work. “These moms really don’t have the time to visit three to four places in their lunch break.”

Castro said one of the women they were trying to help was a Hispanic teacher who was back at work and didn’t have much flexibility between her job and caring for her 2-month-old infant, who was sensitive to many formula brands.

Lisette Fernandez, a 34-year-old Cuban-American first-time mother of twins, has relied on friends and family to find the 2-ounce liquid bottles she needs for her boy and girl. Earlier this week, her father had gone to four different pharmacies before he could get her some boxes of the tiny bottles, but they’re running out fast as the babies grow.


Fernandez said she was unable to start breastfeeding, tried an electric pump but said she produced very little. Her mother, who came to Miami from Cuba as a 7-year-old girl, had decided not to breastfeed her children because she didn’t want to and had been taking medication to suppress lactation.

Some studies have attributed changes in breastfeeding behavior among Hispanics to assimilation, saying Latina immigrants perceive infant formula as an American practice.

“It’s been crazy for the last three to six weeks,” Fernandez said. “I’m used to everything that COVID has brought. But worrying about my kids not getting milk? I didn’t see that coming.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/05/27/baby-formula-shortage-highlights-racial-disparities/ The shortage of baby food underscores racial differences

Sarah Y. Kim

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