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As baby formula shortage worsens, families take desperate steps

Sonja Sharp, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Parenting News

LOS ANGELES — Like most new moms, 26-year-old Veronica Gutierrez's life revolves around feeding her 3-month-old daughter, Alessandra.

For the first month, that meant mostly formula. But that formula was hard to find. She drove from store to store, so shaken by the empty shelves she began pumping her breast milk around the clock, in hopes she could draw out enough to feed Alessandra full time.

"I had just gotten home from the hospital and I was in so much pain — even just having to jump in the car trying to find the formula, I was almost in tears," Gutierrez said.

"There was that uncertainty whether I was actually going to find the formula," she said. "That's why I was working every day latching her on, even if she got just a little bit, because I knew, if I didn't, I would lose my milk supply."

All night, Alessandra nurses. All day, Gutierrez pumps. Still, she considers herself lucky. Unlike millions of American parents, she's no longer worried where her baby's next meal will come from.

Transitioning a bottle-fed baby back to breast milk is a Herculean task. But it's far from the most extreme measure desperate mothers have taken amid the worsening national formula shortage.

 

"Families are having to water down formula, or use [cow's] milk when they're not ready to," said Kelly Sawyer Patricof of Baby2Baby, an L.A.-based nonprofit that distributes formula and other baby supplies to needy families. "They also use juice as a replacement or transition to solid foods before their babies are developmentally ready."

The crisis has been deepening for months, as millions of parents now scramble to feed their children. But low-income mothers such as Gutierrez have been hit particularly hard. About half of all infant formula sold in the United States is purchased through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which pays for food for pregnant people and children under 5 living in or near poverty.

And while all kinds of babies get formula for all kinds of reasons, WIC recipients such as Alessandra get it at roughly double the rate of their wealthier neighbors. In South L.A., more than 70% of babies Alessandra's age are formula-fed, while almost the same proportion receive only breast milk on the Westside, data show. Across California, about 150,000 infants receive formula through the program.

Now, many mothers say they're struggling to find it.

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