Formula Shortage Contributes to Financial Crisis for Farming Families

For years, Rosa Diaz helped put food on America’s table, picking pumpkin, squash, and other vegetables in the fields around Homestead, Florida, five days a week. But lately, she has struggled to feed her own child.

Nine-month-old Jennifer lives almost entirely on baby food, which is still hard to come by even a month after President Joe Biden announced extraordinary measures to help alleviate a nationwide shortage. Diaz, 30, who does not own a car, is often forced to pay for trips from store to store to track down her daughter’s yellow cans of Enfamil drinks.

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Last week, Diaz’s husband found a single container, enough to last about three days. When it runs out, she’s not sure what they’ll do.

“My pediatrician told me to boil and mash vegetables,” says Diaz, a mother of three who stopped working outside the home after Jennifer was born. With the baby on her hip, Diaz keeps moving and bends down to pick up toys and put them in a garbage can as she storms into the apartment’s tiny galley kitchen to take stock. “I can’t find enough formula. I used to only go to one store to find it.”

The crisis that leaves parents across the country struggling to find formulas for their babies is dragging on and dealing a particular blow to low-income families, including in farming communities like Homestead’s. While wealthier parents turn to expensive European brands or scour the internet, sometimes willing to pay exorbitant price increases when they find what they need, mothers, including Diaz, are often forced to rely on the variety they can find in their local stores. even if the abrupt changes make their babies sick. Others are turning to homemade options that pediatricians have warned may be unsafe for babies.

The difficulties experienced by low-income women add to the financial burden caused by inflation. Diaz now pays $21 a can for formula that used to cost $14, she said. She says she gets a few cans a month from the WIC food aid program, but Jennifer drinks 12. The reps to stores are taking a financial toll in a $5 gas era. And in an agricultural area where everything is scattered, the journeys are not short. They are also often fruitless.

Formula makers have ramped up production and the shortage is expected to narrow in the coming weeks. But progress is often two steps forward, one step back: This month, a newly reopened formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan, whose closure was the core of the shortfall, was closed again after storms caused flooding at the facility. Across the country, store replenishment progress remains sluggish with store shelves filling 76.5% for the week ending June 12, slightly less than the week before, according to research firm IRI.

In Homestead, an agricultural area south of Miami, many of those struggling to feed their children are farm workers. About half of farm workers report living with underage children, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, compared to a quarter of adults overall. About a third of farm workers are women, according to the survey. Most farm workers are of childbearing age and 8 in 10 are Hispanic, most are from Mexico.

Many depend on bottle feeding when their children are babies – some by choice, but many because they spend long days in the fields where it is difficult, if not impossible, to breastfeed or express to maintain their milk supply.

“Farm women are always the shortest, and there are so many disadvantages,” said Rick Nahmias, founder of Food Forward, a California nonprofit. “They have to deal with sexual harassment and the burden of raising children. And because the women sit on the ground in a field for six to nine hours a day, there is no way to express breast milk or deliver milk to their children. bring.”

Farm worker Elia Funez, 34, picks pumpkins, corn and squash in Homestead. Like Diaz, she’s had trouble finding a formula for her 5-month-old Victoria. A single mother who lives in a rented caravan with her daughter and three boys, ages 5, 7 and 10, says she makes about $80 a day and doesn’t have the luxury of time or money to take on this new challenge.

After working a 10- or 11-hour day, she grabs her kids and goes on a hunt for formula, traveling for up to 45 minutes, and paying as much as $50 a can, she said. She said she had breastfed Victoria before, but she couldn’t anymore. She tried to switch brands when she managed to find them, she said, but it often made Victoria sick, she said.

Undocumented workers are particularly disadvantaged by the shortage of formulas because they are not eligible for certain food safety net programs. But even legally resident immigrants are often hesitant to take advantage of these programs because of a Trump-era “public denunciation” rule, which threatened to deny green cards to immigrants who used food stamps or other public benefits. The Biden administration dropped public charges last year, but many immigrants still worry that taking public assistance will hinder their ability to live and work legally in this country.

Many farmland food charities have been unable to formulate to give to needy families, said Melissa Acedera, the executive director of Polo’s Pantry, a Southern California food charity. She has been supplying nonprofit organizations in the Coachella Valley, including Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, with baby food and infant diapers for several months now.

“We really felt it as soon as the shortage hit,” Acedera said. “We literally did the shopping ourselves. I went to 10 different stores and I could only get 15 cans because they all had limits [on how many cans shoppers could buy]† Target and Walmart had bare shelves.”

There is a shortage of food stores in agricultural neighborhoods and communities, so some corner stores may charge extortionate prices, Acedera said.

“The level of access that farm workers have to these necessities just isn’t there,” she said. “And they don’t have the wages to pay what’s being charged. We’re raising money specifically to buy formulas.”

The Federal Trade Commission recently launched an investigation to determine whether small and independent retailers, compared to larger chains, had particular difficulties accessing restricted formulas and identifying scams online.

Language barriers can also hinder farm workers’ ability to find what their families need. This population is also prone to scams, said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, the executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an advocacy group for female farm workers. Fear of complaining to the authorities can particularly expose them, she said.

“These women say they go to mom-and-pop supermarkets, the only stores around, and often much more expensive than going to a supermarket, which is often too far away without a ride, or with gas prices that high. Some will use public transport, but there aren’t enough routes,” she said, so they often have to pay the sky-high “scarcity” prices that small independent stores charge for formula.

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is asking the FTC and the Justice Department to hold accountable those who left some of the country’s most vulnerable workers without recourse.

“It gives me chills just thinking about how bad it is with these families,” Treviño-Sauceda said.

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