diaper formula shortage pandemic

In the early days of the pandemic back in March, parents across the country were facing a scary situation: As frightened consumers (and opportunists) stockpiled baby supplies, parents were finding empty shelves when they needed baby formula, diapers and wipes.

It feels like it's been 100 years since a mom went viral, crying as she videotaped empty shelves in the diaper aisle, but the desperation parents like her felt at the beginning of the pandemic is still being felt now—and the gulf of inequality is widening. Diapers, baby formula and wipes are back on store shelves, but still unattainable for many families.

As the New York Times reports this week, diaper banks continue to be overwhelmed several months into this crisis, because the economic impact is only getting worse, and millions of parents are out of work.

Being unable to afford or access baby supplies is just one of the numerous ways in which the pandemic is disproportionately impacting mothers' mental health. Studies indicate that when mothers don't have the diapers they need for their babies, their mental health suffers and that an "an adequate supply of diapers may prove a tangible way of reducing parenting stress, a critical factor influencing child health and development"

Unfortunately, not everyone has an adequate supply. Diaper and formula scarcity has always been a problem for parents surviving on low incomes, and the pandemic has made the situation dire.

For years, parents who rely on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) and the Special Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have pointed out how the programs do not support families' diapering needs (SNAP and WIC are meant for nutrition, so you can't buy diapers with a SNAP card).

You can purchase formula with WIC, but you get special checks or vouchers for specific amounts of specific products. As the Times reports, this can make it especially hard for parents when certain products are in short supply, especially if they have to go to multiple stores.

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, formula and diaper shortages were impacting all parents. But now that supply chains have caught up, parents with extra money can get what they need and parents who don't have an extra (which is a ton of parents, as millions are out of work) still can't get what they need.

This week, The Goods by Vox ran a story titled "The best $129 I ever spent: Baby formula". The essay is by Dina Gachman, the author of Brokenomics: 50 Ways to Live the Dream on a Dime.

Gachman describes her struggles with breastfeeding and finally making the decision to switch to formula: "I talked to my son's pediatrician, who thankfully refrained from shaming me, and instead said, 'As long as he's eating, I'm happy.' I immediately bought a one-month supply of the formula I'd been using to supplement, for $129.86."

It relived her stress and fed her baby, but just getting a supply of formula is a huge source of stress for so many parents right now.

Gachman's experience is such a contrast to that of Catie Weimer, as reported by the Times. Weimer needed the hypoallergenic formula Alimentum, but couldn't buy a month's supply. She had to buy it in amounts her WIC checks would allow. If she had a voucher for four but the store only had two cans she could end up sacrificing half of her supply. Since the pandemic began WIC has restructured how these vouchers work, allowing Weimer and other moms more flexibility when purchasing formula—but more work needs to be done.

The contrast of these two stories shows how the gulf on inequality is widening during the pandemic, and how the mothers who are already bearing the most stress are taking on more.

Just because diapers and formula are back on the shelves doesn't mean everyone has access to them.

If you want (and are able) to help out, here are two things you can do:

Donate to a diaper bank. Find one near you by checking out the National Diaper Bank Network site.

Donate formula. Call your local food bank to see if they're accepting formula or have specific needs.

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