As the Infant Formula Shortage Drags On, Food and Farm Workers Focus on Breastfeeding | Civil Eats

As the Infant Formula Shortage Drags On, Food and Farm Workers Focus on Breastfeeding

With low pay, long hours, and job insecurity, food and farm workers often abandon breastfeeding when they return to work soon after a baby is born. This makes them especially vulnerable to the formula shortage—with life-or-death repercussions.

Mother breastfeeding her son at home

Laura Morello, a farmworker from McMinnville, Oregon, worked in the fields, pruning plants, until the day before she went into labor on June 3.

Even though Morello, 33, knows she can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act beginning in the late stages of pregnancy, she learned from her experiences with her older children, who are now 6, 11, and 14, that she can’t afford to use time away from work for anything other than caring for and nourishing her baby.

She has always had trouble producing enough milk, so she gave her older children a mix of breast milk and formula. This time is no different, except that Morello—like so many parents—can’t find formula for her baby.

“I was very, very nervous about the formula shortage [before giving birth],” Morello told Civil Eats by Zoom recently. “People told me I better breastfeed because there’s no formula, and now [my baby is] here, the shelves are empty, and I’m not producing enough milk.”

Morello pumps every 90 minutes in hopes of stimulating a larger supply, but she has so far only yielded a few ounces per day—a fraction of what’s needed for one feeding.

“With my son, I went back after six weeks because of the income situation. My breaks weren’t long enough for me to get somewhere and pump.”

“I’m exhausted,” Morello said, as she was caring for her one-month-old daughter as her 6-year-old son vied for her attention while her partner attended a school event with the older children. “My nipples are cracked, and my baby won’t latch. I feel really crappy and tired.”

Morello declined to disclose her hourly wage but said it is less than the price of a can of formula, which costs between $17 and $20.

“With my son, I went back after six weeks because of the income situation. My breaks weren’t long enough for me to get somewhere and pump,” she said, which made it hard to produce enough milk. She eventually gave up and switched to formula.

An Oregon law passed in 2007 requires all employers to provide rest periods for breastfeeding employees and a non-bathroom space in which to pump. Even if women like Morello are legally entitled to breaks, they’re often not proactively informed and fear that asking for special accommodations could be a job liability.

“We don’t want to take chances,” Morello said.

Morello’s story is common among workers across the food system: Low pay, long hours, and job insecurity often mean parents of newborns return to work quickly—and many need to switch to formula due to a lack of opportunity to pump breast milk on the job. In the face of the ongoing formula shortage, it’s a problem with life-or-death repercussions.

When Morello gave birth in early June, her doctor gave her two cans of formula. At a follow-up appointment hours before she spoke to Civil Eats, she learned her baby wasn’t putting on enough weight and asked if she could water down the last of her formula supply. The pediatrician said no, explaining that formula is a necessity for her baby’s survival at this point.

“I expressed to him that there’s no formula at local stores in town. He gave me two more cans. That will get [us] by for a little bit longer.” Morello says.

Morello’s biggest worry is running out of formula and not being able to get more from her pediatrician. She’s also been researching giving her baby alternatives such as coconut or oat milk, which is not recommended by pediatricians.

WIC as a Limited Solution for the Formula Crisis

For parents in Morello’s situation, the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—known as WIC—aims to help provide nutritious foods to families in need. Of particular importance right now, WIC purchases more than half the formula given to babies in the U.S. In states like California, 80 percent of WIC recipients use formula either exclusively or as a supplemental means of nourishment for their babies.

When we spoke, Morello was just a week away from her appointment at WIC so she was praying that she wouldn’t have to resort to desperate measures. Still, she was worried–not only for her own baby, but for other people’s babies, too.

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“Even though I qualify for WIC, I still have to purchase formula,” Morello said. “There are some who don’t qualify for WIC because they are above the federal poverty level, but they have to pay more for health insurance and taxes. In reality, their income is not that much.”

Even many unionized workers, who often receive higher wages and more comprehensive benefits than non-union workers, are struggling with the formula shortage.

Adrianna Carranza, 30, is a barista at Oakland International Airport and worked until the last day of her pregnancy with her daughter Lili, who arrived four weeks early. However, Carranza is a member of UNITE HERE, which grants her and other new parents eight weeks of family medical leave (12 weeks for those having a cesarean birth), a $17.50-per-hour wage, and the right to take up to three years of leave to care for her baby. Her hourly wage may not sound like much, but she said she is grateful for every penny of it.

“The union voted to have a better healthcare package and a pension rather than a higher wage, and it’s a major bump from the $12 an hour I started at 10 years ago,” Carranza explained.

Even so, she’s still missing consistent access to a suitable source of nourishment for her baby. Carranza doesn’t produce enough of her own milk, so her sister shared her breast milk with the newborn, though they still supplemented with formula. Carranza ‘s baby reacted to the formula and was diagnosed with a sensitivity to Carranza’s sister’s milk. Formula shortage got real.

“I signed up for WIC because I qualified, but I couldn’t get the brand I needed without a [doctor’s] prescription. Even though I was entitled to it with my prescription, there was no formula for me to get,” Carranza said. So far, finding the right formula for her baby has required a lot of legwork, connecting with support groups and buy-sell-trade formula groups, and online apps like FindMyBabyFormula.com—as well as doing a lot of driving.

Carranza said she has regularly driven 80 miles round-trip to pick up the right formula. “No matter how tired I was, I couldn’t give up on feeding my baby,” she said.

She also serves as a union shop steward on behalf of workers and parents who opt to return to work after their FMLA paid leave expires. One challenge she says workers face is having access to pumping breaks. She told Civil Eats that she filed a grievance nearly seven years ago on behalf of a nursing mom who couldn’t get proper access to pumping breaks.

“Now, women can pump. There are pumping stations all over Oakland International Airport and workers are entitled to use them,” Carranza said. “That’s progress.”

Proactively Informing Workings of their Rights

Lena DeGloma, a certified lactation counselor, says that along with protective laws and protocols, the first step in overcoming systemic shortcomings and failures in terms of supporting moms of infants may be in the kind of proactive communication and advocacy Carranza is doing as a union shop steward.

In addition to fundamentally changing how food companies provide parental leave, DeGloma says they also need to inform workers about their rights.

“These are not personal failures. They are systemic failures that result from women being forced back to work and not having access to pumping breaks.”

“It’s not enough for companies to have the rights of moms listed in the fine print on a board or a manual or buried in a website,” DeGloma said. “The burden should be on the employers to proactively inform the workers.”

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DeGloma says that while 80 percent of birthing parents intend to or hope to exclusively breastfeed their babies, only about 25 percent are still breastfeeding at six months. “These are not personal failures. They are systemic failures that result from women being forced back to work and not having access to pumping breaks,” DeGloma said. “We’re the only country in the world that doesn’t have universal parental leave.”

The formula crisis has both amplifies problems and opportunities in U.S. policy, she added, noting that it helped to drive consolidation in the baby formula industry. “We’ve all come to know Abbott since its recall, [but] why have we consolidated such a critical supply to rely on just a few major players, so that if one thing falls apart, the whole thing crumbles?” DeGloma says. She also believes only when the U.S. adopts more family-friendly policies can women and children truly thrive.

“It’s completely naive for people to say, ‘Just breastfeed if you can’t get formula.’ It’s not that easy. If you don’t use it, you lose it,” DeGloma says. “We need a universal [federally funded and implemented] parental leave policy that is available to everyone without fear of retaliation.”

Missing Ingredients to Prenatal Success for Food and Farm Workers

Mily Trevino-Sauceda, the executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, says parents in the field are perhaps the most vulnerable and unprotected women—both when it comes to the formula shortage and in maintaining sustained employment.

“Campesinas often don’t have access to hygienic places to pump or a refrigerator to store their milk. This forces women into formula feeding—and now they’re struggling to find formula.”

“If we had the option, most of us would give our babies breast milk,” Trevino-Sauceda, a former farmworker herself, said. “Campesinas often don’t have access to hygienic places to pump or a refrigerator to store their milk. This forces women into formula feeding—and now they’re struggling to find formula.”

After their babies arrive, these women face a whole additional level of vulnerability based on their roles as primary caretaker of children. One of the campesinas, who is now out of work, joined a recent call with Trevino-Sauceda to explain that lack of access to pumping facilities is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to struggles for farm working women. The larger problem, she said, is that in spite of being primary caregivers at home and hard workers in the fields, they’re seen as expendable.

“Many of the women drop off the children at childcare, take them to appointments, and care for them when they’re sick,” the farmworker recalled. “If we’re a few minutes late or miss a day of work because of it, we lose our job.”

This lack of flexibility, coupled with a failure to educate workers about their rights, are just two ways that U.S. companies don’t support families, says Denise Witzig, a professor of women’s and gender Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. She noted the irony in how some fought so hard to restrict abortion while doing so little to support women and children in other stages of their lives.

“Two-thirds of the world’s poor are women with children,” Witzig said. “We have to take into account that women are primary caretakers of children, and if we want successful families, we have to support women and their babies from the beginning.”

Sharon K. Sobotta is an advocate, a writer, a journalist, a mom and a doula. She has dedicated her professional career to advocating for gender and racial equity, inclusion and diversity while amplifying the voices of marginalized populations. Read more >

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