A desperate search: Crossing the border to find baby formula

For one group of workers, the baby formula shortage is a multi-pronged crisis that threatens not only the well-being of their young children — but also their own livelihoods.

Many shoppers’ weekly grocery trips don’t require much more than a short car ride into town. But that’s not how it plays out for women farmworkers, many of whom live in food desert areas close to their jobs. They must travel significant distances away from home to get even the most basic food essentials.

That’s the case for women like Maria, 26, who has an 8-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old boy. Originally from Guanajuato in central Mexico, Maria has been a farmworker in the US since 2017.

Maria is struggling to feed her sons, who need specialized lactose-free formula because of digestive issues that prevent them from getting the nutrients they need from cow’s milk.

“Both of them throw up a lot because of this problem,” Maria said. But her formula supply is stretched thin and she’s currently struggling to find more amid the ongoing formula shortage in the US.

The family lives in Salton Sea Beach in Southeast California, a hot and dry area that’s not the most comfortable place to live, she said. But the fertile land around the lake, where seasonal crops such as cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, lemons and grapefruit are grown, provides robust farm work.

Maria asked to not include her last name, and it’s not surprising she’s reluctant. “The reality is that more than 60% of [women] farmworkers are undocumented,” said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a national organization that represents more than 700,000 women farmworkers across 20 states.

According to government estimates, at least half of all farmworkers in the US are undocumented immigrants.

Women farmworkers bear the brunt of the formula shortage in ways that other consumers can’t begin to understand, said Treviño-Sauceda.

“Even if they want to breastfeed, they can’t. They work between nine to 13 hours a day with few breaks. They travel long distances to their low-pay jobs,” said Treviño-Sauceda. “They don’t have adequate healthcare or other support to even pump at work.”

Their home lives aren’t any easier, either: “Many women live together, three to four in one household, often in a small trailer home. Where do they have the privacy or the infrastructure to even store any breastmilk?”

Paying for trips to find formula — instead finding empty shelves

Even with the Biden administration facilitating additional shipments of formula from abroad, formula stock rates in the US are not improving. More than 21% of formula products — powder, ready-to-drink and liquid — were out of stock during the week ending June 19, compared with a typical rate of 10% before a nationwide infant formula recall by Abbott Nutrition in February.

Maria has scoured local store shelves for formula. But it’s been a futile and expensive exercise lately. If her husband, who is also an hourly farmworker, is unable to drive her to the nearest store 45 minutes away, she pays someone $20 to $25 to take her. The round trip takes her two hours, and she takes her children with her because she can’t afford childcare.

She is currently taking a break from work to tend to her youngest child — but she worries about what will happen when she has to go back. What will happen if she or her husband are forced to miss work to drive far and wide to locate more formula? The family can’t afford to lose a paycheck, she said.

With stores out of stock of the formula she needs for weeks at a time, Maria has sometimes relied on a risky, unpredictable and expensive solution: Maria has asked her brother to cross the border to try to find formula in Mexicali, a city in Mexico about 90 minutes from where she lives.

“It’s $13 a can there, and $18 a can here,” she said. “He doesn’t do this a lot but [we do it] when I really need it.”

Access to formula critical for farmworkers

Other women farmworkers can relate.

Alma, 27, who also didn’t want her last name included, is a farmworker from Homestead, Florida, who works for a family-run plant nursery.

Shortly after her infant daughter’s birth, Alma said she had to take medications that stopped her from breastfeeding her child. Her now six-month-old baby relies on formula, she said.

“It’s very difficult to find. I look at Walmart, Publix and the shelves are empty,” she said. She’s scared to try changing the formula for fear that her daughter will get sick.

Recently she had only two cans left, but felt fortunate to find and purchase online for pickup two more cans at a Walgreens an hour away from where she lives. “When I got there they had already sold it to someone [else], even though I had paid for it online,” she said.

Alma said she has spent hours traveling to faraway stores trying to find even a single can. She’s missed work — sometimes a few hours or even a full day. She’s scared she could lose her job.

She’s tried to get the formula through WIC (the special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children) but said she couldn’t get the exact kind her daughter needs.

About half the baby formula purchased in the United States is purchased through the WIC program. Families who use WIC can only buy formula at retailers that accept their benefits. Also, WIC recipients can’t use their benefits to buy formula online at retailers like Amazon or Walmart.com. This means families have to drive, sometimes for hours, to find formula on the shelves of stores that will accept their benefits.

Said Alianza Nacional de Campesinas’ Treviño-Sauceda: “The irony is that these women work the land to produce food for everyone else, while they’re struggling to feed their own children.”

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