Point/Counterpoint: Baby formula shortage exposes our nation's inequitable food system
From the column: The crisis "offers an alarming commentary on our national priorities around food and hunger, especially around helping parents and caregivers meet their family’s basic needs and ensuring that everyone has access to safe, affordable, and nutritious foods."
No child should ever go hungry in the richest nation in the world. And yet, in recent days and weeks, panicked parents and caretakers who rely on infant formula for their loved ones’ health and nutritional needs contended with the skyrocketing prices of baby formula and a severe shortage in grocery stores.
Nationwide, 43% of baby formula products are out of stock , a massive increase from a typical average of 2% to 8%. Formula was already too expensive for many families, costing up to $1,500 in one year alone. Shortages and other pandemic-related challenges raised the price of formula, along with other necessities.
The formula crisis sheds light on just how inequitable our food system is, leaving millions of the most vulnerable populations without access to affordable food.
Coupled with supply-chain and safety issues , the price of formula is untenably high at a time when millions are still struggling to recover from the pandemic and economic recession. The baby-formula crisis has taken a particularly disastrous toll on low-income parents and caretakers, especially single parents and guardians in low-wage jobs, who are recovering more slowly from the economic recession . The formula shortage is equally challenging for individuals with disabilities or other health issues who rely on formula for their nutritional intake and survival , as well as LGBTQ+ and foster and adoptive parents who rely on formula for their infants.
The baby formula crisis stemmed from a product recall by an Abbott Laboratories facility in Michigan due to contaminated products and unsanitary conditions, and it was made worse by our weak supply chain, unfettered consolidation of formula production by just four major companies, corporate profiteering, bureaucratic red tape, and under-resourced government agencies that provide oversight of such a crucial resource for families. It also offers an alarming commentary on our national priorities around food and hunger, especially around helping parents and caregivers meet their family’s basic needs and ensuring that everyone has access to safe, affordable, and nutritious foods.
The administration of President Joe Biden and some lawmakers offered measures to mitigate the crisis, including reducing bureaucratic hurdles to get formula on grocery shelves faster, cracking down on corporate price gouging, and increasing supplies. And while these interventions will go a long way to address the baby-formula challenges in the short term, our policymakers need to focus on long-term solutions, including building an equitable, sustainable food system that ensures universal access to safe and quality foods for all Americans.
The White House recently announced a national conference on hunger, nutrition, and health to be held in September. Additionally, there are two legislative opportunities that allow Congress to take meaningful action in the next few months: In 2022, Congress is due to reauthorize the Child Nutrition and Women, Infant and Children Act , which authorizes all federal child-nutrition programs, reaching millions of children and their families each day; and in 2023, Congress will turn its attention to reauthorizing the Farm Bill, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program , or SNAP, the largest anti-hunger program that supplements the food budget of needy families so they can buy healthy food and move toward self-sufficiency.
The White House conference and the openings for Congress to update the Child Nutrition Act and the Farm Bill offer an unprecedented opportunity to think about how we might reimagine our food system, focusing on sustainable, resilient productions; strong supply chains; adequate supply; and access to culturally and nutritionally diverse quality, affordable food for every person living within our borders.
Imagine for a second the magnitude of fear and uncertainty millions of parents and caregivers in America are feeling right now as they grapple with where or how they are going to find and afford life-giving formula for their child. This crisis offers us a window into the everyday despair and anxiety felt by millions of low-income parents and caregivers who struggle to put food on the table.
In the wealthiest country in the world, this is a failing of massive proportion. Over the next year, the United States has a crucial, once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the lives and health of millions of our nation’s children and other vulnerable people by focusing on building an equitable, sustainable food system that takes in the needs of our diverse communities. Let’s take that opportunity to heart and create a country in which every person has the ability to not only survive but thrive and prosper.
Arohi Pathak is director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (americanprogress.org), a liberal nonprofit on economic and social issues in Washington, D.C.