This weekend was my first real exposure to the impact of the baby formula shortage.
During a rainy and dreary Saturday, my sister, her husband, their 8 week-old baby boy loaded up into the family car and embarked on a few weekend errands. One of those errands was to find a few cans of the special baby formula the little guy needed.
After the first four stores in a 5 mile radius turned up nothing, my sister texted me to say their Saturday plans had officially turned into a Formula Road Trip. 10 miles and five more stores later, the shelves were as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboards. Stores 10-15 had the same result – absolute chaos in the baby food aisle. It was after store number 15 when my sister put out an APB to my parents, my brother, and I to grab any formula we might happen to find if we see it.
My sister was telling me the stories of the people they came across during their search for baby formula. One mother looked grief-stricken as she stared at the empty shelves; another father was pacing back and forth texting with who was presumed to be other parent. One man they came across said he’d travelled 35 miles and had been to 50 stores and turned up nothing. The one case of formula they did find was also becoming evidence of a crime right in front of their eyes, as police officers descended on a woman with a diaper box full of formula. When my sister and her husband headed back home – some 4 hours and 40 meandering miles later – they were still formulaless.
On Sunday, she and I made our way to a different part of town to see if there was an untapped reservoir of formula they didn’t think of. As we made our way to the baby aisle, the look in her eyes went from disappointment to concern. “I’m scared,” she said to me. “We don’t have a lot of his formula left and I’m not sure what we’re going to do if we can’t get his specific kind in soon.”
My nephew is the cutest little thing on the planet. He’s got the most adorable cheeks, a sunny disposition, and thanks to being born prematurely, he’s got digestion issues. My sister can’t just pick up any old formula and throw it in his bottle. As we grocery shopped, I tried my best to help pick her spirits up, but you could tell she was rightfully scared of how she was going to feed her child if she couldn’t get his formula soon.
One of the perks of reporting on the food and beverage industry is that you hear about things relating to food and consumers before anyone else does. Knowing that Biden enacted the Defense Production Act for baby formula last week or that we’re importing baby formula from Europe offered little solace to my worried sister.
On top of trying to feed her infant, my sister also learned that her peanut butter was probably recalled and proceeded to throw a jar of Jif in the garbage.
“WHY in the &*$# IS THIS HAPPENING!?!?!?!” she exclaimed on the verge of tears. “Why is feeding my family so damn hard?”
And that right there is where the dam starts to break for a lot of families. When people can’t feed their families because everything from their peanut butter to their infant formula has been compromised, they stop trusting big food all together. And I haven’t mentioned what inflation is doing the cost of all of this food they need to buy.
As someone who reports on the food industry, I know the bigger, more long-tail story about the shortages and the food safety issues. But knowing about safety, inspections, and equipment issues offers little help to the parents desperate to feed their kids.
If I could offer any advice to any and all companies tasked with making food or formula products, it would be this: talk to your consumers. Explain what’s going on and how you’re fixing it….immediately. Some may not believe you, but those that do will likely feel tad bit more at ease knowing help is on the way.