Baby Formula Crisis: Civil Society to the Rescue

The national baby formula crisis has thrown parents across the country into panic mode. Inventory is dangerously low in some states while stockpiles have entirely run dry in others. Moms and dads are exhausting every avenue to find nourishment for their children – and they can’t wait another six to eight weeks to feed their babies, the timeline formula producer Abbott Nutrition has given to get supplies back on shelves. 

Civil society – including individual citizens, nonprofit organizations, and private philanthropy – has come to the rescue in myriad and organized ways. There are amazing stories of relatives, friends and complete strangers who have come together to get baby formula into the hands of grateful moms and dads. Like many other crises such as natural disasters, the American can-do spirit kicks in to quickly marshal resources and mobilize help for those who need it. America’s formula-fed babies will be the next case study of this generosity. 

A shortage of baby formula to this magnitude in the most prosperous nation is unprecedented, according to experts, and its impact is far-reaching. Currently, 43% of baby formula inventory is out of stock nationally, up from 18% at the start of 2022 and 3% from the same time in 2021. Three out of four babies below the age of 6 months in the U.S. consume baby formula, making this situation dire for many families. While the government has failed to take robust steps to shore up supply until recently, regular Americans were quick to spring into action – finding creative ways to help desperate parents secure sustenance for their babies.  

First, people are engaging in peer-to-peer philanthropy. During this crisis, parents have used  social media to start online groups, where they trade information on where to find different types of formula. Two Houston mothers even created an interactive map to aid the formula hunt. The website drew thousands of views overnight after going live.  

Others are sharing their extra supply in response to TikTok and Facebook posts. Strangers have stepped in as well to become formula “matchmakers.” Those with supplies will post that they have extra cans of formula to give away and mutual friends or family members tag those who might be in need. Sometimes, shipments arrive from other countries and sometimes they are walked over from a nearby neighbor.  

Second, mothers are tapping nonprofit feeding organizations that specifically aid babies’ nutritional needs. If formula is unavailable, parents may consider using other women’s breast milk for their little ones by securing a donation from a local milk bank. Milk banks regularly collect donations from lactating women and distribute them to babies who need it, though priority is given to premature and medically fragile babies. 

The good news is, in response to the formula shortage, moms are flooding milk banks with donations. According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, an accrediting organization for milk banks, these sites are experiencing a significant influx in supply. Inquiries from potential donors are up 20% in recent days. At Massachusetts-based Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, Executive Director Deborah Youngblood said potential donors are flooding the phone lines. In just one day recently, the organization received the number of calls from willing milk donors that they normally field in one month. “It’s interesting the first sort of response that we got was from potential donors — so, people responding to the formula shortage with sort of an amazing, compassionate response of, ‘How can I be part of the solution?’” 

These small acts of kindness illustrate how Americans organically find solutions to address immediate problems, working at this stage to complement the government’s response to the formula crisis. After all, civil society is nimble and effective, focused on outcomes above rigid processes. It is not bound by red tape and bureaucracy like the public sector. Individuals and organizations are near problems on the ground. For these reasons and others, Americans harbor a deep trust of the charitable sector, preferring philanthropic aid to solve social problems in America over government aid, according to polling in recent years.  

“Amazing” and “compassionate” often describe how people respond in times of crisis. As this situation illustrates, American generosity is not limited to money or volunteering time. These mutual aid efforts are tools we employ in society to make the lives of others better and our communities stronger. 

This is a critical moment for many families who don’t know where they will find nourishment to feed their babies. However, there’s hope that until the formula crisis ends, individual acts of kindness and compassion will help meet the needs of society’s littlest and most vulnerable.  

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