With infant formula becoming harder to find on store shelves, concerns are growing for black and Hispanic parents and low-income families who have less access to the products — and in some cases, greater need — than their white counterparts.
In Connecticut, 88% of white parents start breastfeeding their newborns, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For black parents, that number is 84% and for Hispanic parents, it’s 85%.
The disparities between black and white parents are greater at the national level. Nationally, 85% of white parents start breastfeeding, while only 73% of black parents do so.
“The disproportionate way we have access to things that help us be healthy, like nutritious food, health care, dental care, all of those things — that’s part of that anxiety,” the Reverend said. Robyn Anderson, a pastor at Blackwell AME Zion Church in Hartford and co-founder of the Ministerial Health Fellowship, a health care advocacy network based in black churches in the state. “We’re in this place where we’re already marginalized, not always having access to things that white mothers or others can access, and this formula shortage is another way to create more anxiety.”
Black parents had the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and continuation at six months and 12 months of all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, according to a 2015 study. Black mothers were 2.5 times less likely to breastfeed than white women and were more likely than most minority groups to provide formula supplementation at two days of age.
Although Hispanic mothers have some of the highest rates of breastfeeding initiation nationally, they are slightly more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to provide formula supplementation as early as two days of life, according to the ‘study. Compared to white women, black and Hispanic mothers are more likely to introduce solid foods before four months of age and have lower rates of exclusive breastfeeding.
Low-income families have also been disproportionately affected by the shortage. Parents who rely on the federal Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) face limits on the brands and types of formula as well as the retailers where they can purchase these products.
And low-income parents who consume infant formula are less likely to be able to buy a little more.
“If you are in a situation where you have limited resources, even researching formula and looking around or getting formula online [is difficult]. You definitely leave people further behind,” said Tiffany Donelson, president and CEO of the Connecticut Health Foundation. “That’s why it’s important for us, as community organizations as well as the state… to innovate on ways to ensure access for women. That’s the most important thing, just making sure we have access.
Dr. Molly Markowitz, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale School of Medicine and a pediatrician at Fair Haven Community Health Center in New Haven, said many of her patients struggle to find formula.
“I mainly see black and Hispanic families in Fair Haven. And I just see that, on a day-to-day basis, families are really struggling,” she said.
Socio-economic factors sometimes play a role in the ability to breastfeed. If a mother has to return to work quickly, she may be less likely to breastfeed, Markowitz said.
“A lot of our families don’t necessarily have jobs that allow for parental leave, so they have to go back there immediately. Maybe they took unpaid time off or used what little vacation time they had. Maybe they need the money so they can’t take time off,” she said.
“Of course, there are situations where breastfeeding supports are possible at work, but many of our families work in settings where it doesn’t seem possible. … Breastfeeding takes work and time. And it’s not easy for everyone, especially if you have underlying medical conditions or other factors. We certainly see a big decline over time.
At a recent state forum on the formula shortage, Markowitz told lawmakers the issue was one of racial justice.
“This current shortage does not affect everyone equally,” she said. “Black infants are much more likely to use formula and live in economically challenged households, which, given the limited supply, is so difficult.”
“Some of the families looking for formula can buy it online, but with the WIC Supplemental Nutrition Program, you can’t use your benefits to buy formula this way, which is a barrier,” said Markowitz. “Economically vulnerable families can’t necessarily afford the time and gas it takes to travel to multiple places trying to find formula. I hear stories about it over and over again. Families who use WIC share that they don’t know what types of plans are covered by their benefits.
“It is essential that families have access to a secure supply of infant formula, as gaps in necessary nutrition can have lifelong developmental consequences. »
The formula shortage is a result of pandemic-related supply chain challenges and a national infant formula recall by Abbott Nutrition. Abbott closed its Sturgis, Michigan plant in February amid the recall and after several infants fell ill with bacterial infections from consuming powdered baby formula. Abbott released a statement saying there was no “conclusive evidence” linking its formulas to childhood illnesses.
Last week, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and others sent a letter to Abbott Laboratories CEO Robert Ford urging him to relieve state WIC programs and the people they serve.
“Mothers in our states have been forced to search for formula for their infants, traveling ever greater distances to find empty shelves. According to the most recent data, more than 40% of stores in our states are currently out of stock of infant formula,” the senators wrote. “This situation is particularly untenable for low-income mothers, who have neither the time nor the resources to enable them to access this exhausted supply. Because WIC is expressly intended to support low-income families and because this supply crisis is a direct result of contamination at an Abbott facility, Abbott must ensure that states have sufficient WIC contractual obligations. flexible during this period.
“In total, nearly 40,000 infants in our states’ WIC programs are partially or fully formula-fed, and our states are limited to Abbott formulas solely because of these contractual obligations.”
The senators have called on Abbott to extend the discounts to all infant formula at least through the end of the year. “Similarly,” they wrote, “once safety issues regarding Abbott infant formula are resolved, Abbott should work with states to ensure that WIC recipients and families have confidence in the products. Abbott before removing discounts for competing products.”
Abbott said it plans to reopen its factory by the first week of June, but it could take another six to eight weeks to get more product back on store shelves.
A bill that would ease the burden on low-income parents by allowing the WIC program, a major purchaser of infant formula, to source from more foreign suppliers was recently passed overwhelmingly by the United States House and authorized the Senate by voice vote, The Washington Post reported. . President Joe Biden signed it into law.
Another measure, which would provide $28 million in aid to the Food and Drug Administration to address the formula shortage, passed the House but faces a murky path in the Senate, the Post reported.
As state and federal leaders work to get more products back on the shelves, Anderson encouraged them to consider greater access for all parents.
“We have neighborhoods that don’t even have access to full-service grocery stores,” she said. “A lot of people of color, they rely on the bodegas that are in their areas. And so if the grocery store doesn’t have [formula], you know bodegas won’t have it either. Will we also think about supplying the bodegas, thinking about those areas and making sure the formula is available? »