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Infant formula shortage crisis exposed inequities in infant food security

Recent congressional and administrative actions to address the nationwide baby formula shortage are welcome news for children, families, women and birthing people. At the same time, it is inexcusable that babies and families are in this terrifying and preventable situation.
While the recent federal government-led actions aim to mitigate the most devastating consequences of this nationwide crisis, there still is more to do to address the country’s failing, inequitable infant nutrition and food infrastructure. While the baby formula shortage impacts nearly all families with young children, communities of color and families living in poverty will shoulder most of this trauma while they continue to be disproportionately affected by crisis after crisis.
While more than half of all infants take some formula by the time they are three months old, CDC survey data shows that people living in poverty are more likely to supplement with formula during that time. Other CDC reports show that Black parents are 17% less likely to report exclusive breastfeeding at three months (and thus supplementing with formula) when compared to White parents. These choices are caused by the variety of socio-economic stressors that low-income birthing parents face every day, which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic and limited workforce protections that don’t prioritize children and families.
As a result, people of color and people living in poverty will likely continue to suffer lasting health and economic consequences after this is over. They might not have the resources to pay premium prices for supplies and are less likely to have access to health services, paid leave or the kind of workplace flexibility necessary to support breastfeeding, including the time and space to pump breastmilk at work.
WKKF grantees have been working to develop robust, long-term solutions to infant nutrition long before the crisis and the long-standing racial and economic inequities that drive its disproportionate impact. This requires investing in key policy priorities – such as increased prenatal support; diversifying the birth workforce to ensure that families have access to culturally congruent care; funding human milk banking efforts and making sure there is equitable access to donor milk; and enabling access to greater lactation support and culturally relevant care alternatives such as doulas and midwives – and taking a more holistic approach to uplifting at-risk infants and mothers.
Breastfeeding support is critical, and we also need to enact other policies that make it easier to have and raise a family, like paid family and medical leave, quality childcare, increased funding for community-based organizations, improved data collection processes, provisions to support moms with maternal mental health conditions and the earned income tax credit. Comprehensive legislative proposals are essential to closing the existing racial gaps in maternal and infant mortality rates. 
We applaud our elected federal leaders for taking action to increase the production of and access to the formula that parents desperately need today. And it’s critical that these actions are seen as just the first step in a necessary reevaluation of the inequities in our nation’s public health systems and structures, especially for the more vulnerable. Far too many families lack the basic support they need to raise healthy children.
The formula shortage crisis has­ vividly illustrated the dire inequities that define our social safety net. In the weeks and months ahead, we urge policymakers on both sides of the aisle in Washington, D.C., and across the country to work toward long-term and holistic solutions to address, once and for all, sustainable infant food security that puts children and parents first.

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