‘Fed is best. Period’: Why mom guilt, lack of paid leave, and government policy affect the baby formula shortage

Taketa King Pang, the Director of Women’s Foundation of Florida, said the Food and Drug Administration could have prevented baby formula shortage through proactive measures.


Nadia Gordon

As of last month, grocery data experts projected the out-of-stock rate for baby formula is at 43%, and they say it will only worsen as the year progresses. 

Nadia Gordon, Director of Broadcast Journalism

Thousands of women across the country are struggling to find baby formula–stemming from a voluntary recall of several Abbott Nutrition formula brands in February.

As of last month, grocery data experts projected the out-of-stock rate is at 43%, and they say it will only worsen as the year progresses. 

Taketa King Pang, director of the West Palm Beach-based Women’s Foundation of Florida, said this could have been avoided if the federal government had been more proactive. 

“We do need to hold our government accountable, moving forward, because this was completely preventable,” said Pang. “It was totally the fault of the FDA, really not reacting quickly enough to ensure that the babies in our country are able to be fed.” 

“There are over 181,000 residents in Palm Beach County who are struggling with hunger and 52,000 of them are our children,” said Chloe Troll, Director of Communications at the Palm Beach County chapter of United Way. 

This statistic, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, was one of the reasons United Way developed a Food Finder map in 2020. Parents and guardians can utilize this tool to locate formula and other resources for their babies in their area. 

FAU’s Beyond Food pantry does not offer baby formula, but Troll said anyone can utilize the 211 Helpline, a partnership with United Way that connects individuals with food, housing, and transportation-related resources in the county. 

North Lauderdale resident and former FAU student Chakirah Samuels is a mother of four. Her youngest is one year old and she recently took him off formula. Samuels found out about the shortage when she noticed her go-to formula was becoming harder to find in stores. 

“I started to do my own research and realized that I wasn’t the only parent dealing with a shortage,” Samuels wrote in an email. “The shortage affected me because this brand that his doctor recommended and used for the first six months of his life was not available anymore. I had to go through multiple generic brands until I found one that agreed with his sensitive stomach.” 

This shortage is unlike anything the country has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Non-profit organizations such as the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, the Women’s Foundation of Florida, and the Palm Beach County chapter of United Way have been working to connect parents with the resources they need during this critical time. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the nation–meaning the shortage is especially prevalent in the state. 

The shortage has highlighted some nuances of breastfeeding, which can be particularly hard for some mothers. In some cases, their situation can lead to mom guilt.

Simultaneously, the Supreme Court documents leaked in early May contained a leaked draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that protects a woman’s right to have an abortion. 

“We’re forcing people to have children, but once you have them, we’re not making sure that you have the ability to feed those children,” said Pang. 

Pang also calls the ‘breast is best’ argument a “huge fallacy.”

“Fed is best. Period,” she said. 

According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH), six in every 10 new mothers are in the workforce. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave in a 12-month period. In many cases, women cannot afford to take off as much time as they might need to learn how to breastfeed.

“Women are less able to breastfeed because of the lack of paid leave, learning to breastfeed, getting the child on a schedule, and being able to do it can take weeks of time,” said Pang.  “Some people’s bodies simply do not produce enough. And so they still need to supplement formula. So we really need to make sure we’re moving away from the false narrative that breastfeeding is an alternative to this shortage.”

Michelle Gonzalez, an FAU alumna, and CEO of HMHB, said that today’s formula is a close comparison to breastmilk so mothers should feel confident knowing formula is their next best option. 

“It’s hard enough being a new mom as it is, and then feeling like you’ve failed because everybody’s been telling you how great breastfeeding is, and now you can’t. We want them to know as long as your baby is fed, you’re doing a great job,” said Gonzalez. 

The mission of HMHB is focused on access to care, education, and social support for pregnant women throughout Palm Beach County. Gonzalez is a mother of three and said the message is personal to her for that reason. 

One of the resources of HMHB is an emergency pantry for infants and babies, the only infant-focused pantry in the county, according to Gonzalez. She said the pantry was heavily utilized at the height of the pandemic–but now is needed more specifically. 

“Right now, I think what we’re seeing that’s different is families who wouldn’t typically need access to our services are– for pantry purposes specifically. Because they can’t find their baby formula at the store,” Gonzalez said. 

Gonzalez claims the pantry served over 900 babies in April alone– and the company expects its May data to be higher. 

Around eight months ago, HMHB purchased a large bulk order of baby formula that they still have in stock and are distributing–primarily of the brand Enfamil Infant. However, Gonzalez said specialty formulas have been harder to obtain, but they are working with a vendor to get some as soon as they are available. 

“The beauty of the formula is that it has a shelf life of 18 to 24 months. So a typical food pantry can only hold food for a certain number of days, whereas we can hold inventory for 18 to 24 months.”

In addition to formula, the pantry provides food to babies throughout infanthood. 

“We do the formula 0-12 months. We also distribute infant food packs for babies four to 12 months based on pediatric recommendations and that food pack includes six fruits, six vegetables, and 16 ounces of rice cereal or oatmeal,” said Gonzalez. 

As of May 27, the FDA announced that it will provide at least 1.25 million cans of several formula brands imported from Bubs Australia. This came almost two weeks after the agency heightened its flexibility regarding the importation of ‘certain infant formula products’ to increase availability across the country. 

Additionally, in a May 26 hearing, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf stated that the Abbott Plant is “several weeks” away from reopening. 

Nadia Gordon is the Director of Broadcast Journalism for the University Press. For more information on this article or others, you can reach Nadia at [email protected]