December 8, 2023


Health is important

New baby formula shortage tip sheet spotlights health and economic disparities

Photo by Lucy Wolski via Unsplash.

By the end of this month, the U.S. baby formula shortage caused in part by the shutdown of an Abbott plant over contamination concerns, will have affected millions of families for a quarter of the year. Although the announcement that production has restarted at the closed plant may be a light at the end of the tunnel for desperate parents and caregivers, the crisis continues to highlight disparities in maternal and infant health.

For starters, socioeconomic factors and geography affect access to basic nutrition. These stories from The Washington Post and the The 19th are among articles that explain why low-income families, particularly those living in rural areas, have been hit hardest by the food supply scarcity. 

Beyond the supply chain delays that may impact less populated parts of the country, cash-strapped American parents and caregivers in those areas may feel the pain of the crisis harder because they purchase formula through government assistance programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC.  

This crisis has also created more public awareness of existing disparities in maternal and infant health and the reasons that may drive them. U.S. breastfeeding rates and the benefits and challenges of nursing have been topics that have surfaced in the news in recent weeks. This story from the Associated Press, for example, sheds light on the reasons behind low breastfeeding rates among Black women. 

The food supply debacle has also exposed how corporate concentration and regulations allowing a few companies to control a large share of a market may impact families struggling to make ends meet. Those families are facing a double-whammy because they are hit hardest by rising inflation and have borne the brunt of the economic downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While federal investigators look into the safety lapses that may have caused the contamination of recalled formula suspected in the death of four infants, families impacted by the inventory problem may not see relief any time soon. 

According to the latest analysis from Datasembly, a technology company that develops software for retailers and collects data about packaged goods, the baby formula out-of-stock rate was 73.58% for the week of May 22-29, a drop from the previous week which suggests the situation will continue to worsen. This story from Vox and this podcast episode from Kaiser Health News’ “What the Health?” podcast pull back the curtain on how four U.S. companies came to dominate the formula market. 

With these challenges in mind, this new tip sheet offers resources and ideas for story threads to help journalists develop health equity context when covering the ongoing nutritional emergency.