Last Tuesday (10), Maricella Marquez gave her three-year-old daughter a smaller-than-normal portion of baby food the little girl needs to stay healthy – she suffers from a rare form of allergic esophageal disease.
The family lives on the outskirts of San Antonio in South Texas, one of the cities hardest hit by the national baby food crisis, whose American parents are unsure how to feed their children.
According to retail software company Datasembly, 56% of regular product volume was sold in San Antonio on Tuesday. In the largely Hispanic city, many mothers lack health insurance and work in jobs that offer few opportunities to breastfeed. Shelves are almost empty and NGOs are working to access new stocks.
The baby food shortage has worsened this year as a brand recalled after four babies were hospitalized with a bacterial infection and at least two died. The recall was exacerbated by ongoing supply chain issues and labor shortages. Datasembly’s research found that market shortages of national baby food reached 43% in the week ended Sunday, up 10% from April.
Republicans are taking advantage of the situation to criticize President Joe Biden, arguing that the administration is not doing enough to increase production. On Tuesday, Senator Mitt Romney sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture saying federal officials were taking too long to respond to the problem.
The FDA said officials are working with Abbott Nutrition, which is involved in the recall, to restart production at its Sturgis, Michigan facility.
“We know that many consumers are disappointed and unable to afford the infant formula and essential medical foods they are used to,” FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf said in a statement. “We do everything we can to make sure the appropriate products are available where and when they are needed.”
Many mothers say they share food with rationing. Some drive for hours to get formula, only to find empty shelves. Online retailers charge exorbitant prices, reaching double or triple normal, and large retail chains are completely sold out.
According to Rudi Leuschner, professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School, since the closure of Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility, other manufacturers have struggled to rapidly increase production. “Some industries manage to lower or raise production levels very quickly,” he says. “Just press a button and they produce ten times the normal volume. But baby food is not that kind of product.”
According to Leuschner, the problem may be exacerbated by panic buying, in addition to the larger supply chain problems that have arisen in the pandemic, such as lack of manpower and difficulty accessing raw materials.
Abbott Nutrition said it is doing everything it can, including increasing production at its other US facilities and importing products from its Irish unit.
But even a temporary famine is frightening for parents who have to give their babies less food than they need. Some are searching for homemade recipes online, but experts warn that they may lack vital nutrients and may even carry other risks.
“We also recommend that you don’t dilute the formula too much, as it can upset the child’s nutritional balance,” says Kelly Bocanegra, director of the federal Women, Babies, and Children program in Metro San Antonio. At the City’s Children’s Hospital, doctors are encouraging newborn mothers to breastfeed their babies as much as possible and pump more breast milk.
However, some mothers are unable to breastfeed due to insufficient milk or other problems – many work in industries such as retail or in low-paying jobs and are unable to devote the necessary time to this care.
Others, like Maricella Marquez, whose children need special diets, do not have the option of breastfeeding. According to Elyse Bernal, president of the nonprofit Any Baby Can, in some cases, these parents have already struggled to pay for boxes of baby food, which can cost more than $100 each.
For Darice Brown, the shortage of specialty baby food in Oceanside, California, is so severe that she considered going to a hospital emergency room to feed her 10-month-old daughter, Octavia, who has rare genetic conditions. It is impossible to consume solid foods. “I was piercing, crying on the floor. I said to my husband, ‘I can’t afford to feed our girls, I don’t know what to do,'” she says.
As of Tuesday, Octavia still had four boxes of formulas—all of them products on the recall list—and was trying to make them permanent by giving them smaller bottles.
Parents who tried to buy formula online reported that they faced not only higher prices but also scams. Two weeks ago, 30-year-old Oregonian K-Rae Knowles sent money to a stranger in exchange for specially formulated boxes she needed for her four-month-old son, Callan. The boxes did not arrive and the seller’s Facebook profile was deleted days later.
Maricella Marquez never imagined her daughter would rely on this product to maintain her health, but since the boy was diagnosed, doctors have said the special formula is the only thing that can keep him out of the hospital.
Since the beginning of April, she has been supplementing her daughter’s diet with fruits, vegetables, ground turkey and other plant-based proteins. “Other than that, there’s nothing else he can eat.”
Even when baby food is available, it is expensive. Marquez’s health insurance covers 80% of the cost, but the family still has to pay $375 a month. She plans to spend this week trying out other items that sellers have in stock and testing which ones her daughter can tolerate. “I have no other choice.”