116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Critics would have us believe that the recent coverage of the infant formula shortage constitutes a cynical play for the political favor of suburban moms. Yet, as a middle-aged rural Iowan, the crisis concerns me intimately. Infant formula likely saved my life as a child.
Rural, young, and struggling, my parents had reached their wit’s end with me — a colicky, chronically sickly baby — in the early 1970s. Vomiting, diarrhea, rash — my particular panoply of symptoms mimicked many other illnesses. At the time, my parents were living in a single-wide trailer in my grandparents’ backyard, and the trip to Iowa City 40 miles distant to see a specialist was intimidating and costly. As a result of my rapidly declining health, my dad left his job managing a small-town airport in central Iowa to return us to the family farm, hoping support from close-by grandparents would help make me well again.
In desperation, my doctor-adverse parents reached out to a pediatrician named, hopefully enough, Dr. Maxwell. Dr. Maxwell diagnosed my condition as a serious, potentially fatal milk allergy, and instructed my parents to try a commercial infant formula made from soy. More than 40 years later, my mom still credits the formula, and Dr. Maxwell, with saving my life.
Some media pundits prefer to paint today's moms and dads as whiny prima donnas who might solve the formula shortage simply by breastfeeding. Such criticism comes packaged with the wrongful presumptions that all parents are capable of breastfeeding and that all children can safely consume milk.
Research shows that lower-income moms are less likely to breastfeed, and often lack the time and support enjoyed by their more affluent counterparts. Breastfeeding rates vary dramatically by geo-demographics, too, as a recent CDC report card shows. In Iowa, just 54 percent of parents who begin breastfeeding continue beyond the six-month mark. In Oregon and California rates of breastfeeding are nearly twenty percentage points higher. Disparities like these suggest that residents of more rural regions like the Midwest and South may suffer disproportionately as shortages continue.
Widespread concerns over rising gas and energy prices, coupled with omnipresent supply chain woes, appear likely to overshadow the infant formula crisis. Meanwhile, parents of infants and newborns may be forced to improvise in the face of ongoing shortages and empty shelves, making do with inadequate or unsafe options that may endanger their child’s health. Worldwide, UNICEF estimates childhood malnutrition contributes to more than 3 million deaths in children under 5. And according to a 2021 study in the UK, allergies to cow’s milk are already the most common cause of fatal reactions in children.
My experience suggests that access to good, safe infant formula really can be a matter of life and death. Far from being a partisan ploy or political wedge issue, the infant formula crisis should matter urgently to all who care deeply about the welfare of American families.
Zachary Michael Jack’s most recent book on the Midwest is The Haunt of Home: A Journey through America’s Heartland.