When You Live in a Food Desert, Every Day Is a Formula Shortage

The formula crisis is a racial justice issue.

Erika Aguerrido, 42, carries three cans of formula, in Chelsea, Mass., on May 20, 2022. (Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

The culmination of a trifecta of challenges—supply-chain issues, product recall and historic inflation—have resulted in a national formula crisis, all during a time when the nation is still reeling from the COVID pandemic. Forty percent of formula is out-of-stock, forcing parents to take extraordinary measures to find formula for their child, including driving out-of-state or pleading on social media. However, the fight for formula in this new Hunger Games-esque reality is not the same for all parents.

Black infants are less likely to breastfeed compared with other racial groups, according to the CDC—meaning Black babies greatly rely on formula and thus, may be more impacted by the formula shortage. To magnify the disparity, Black women are more likely than white women to have incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level and to receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits. While some parents are able to jump in a car and drive to other states to look for formula or pay any shelf price, not all parents are afforded the same luxury. 

Parents with low incomes face the brunt of this crisis the hardest. The WIC program is designed to provide nutritious foods, information on healthy eating, and referrals to healthcare for low-income, pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children up to the age of 5 who are at nutritional risk. With WIC, low-income parents are only able to purchase approved baby formula.

As such, the shortage has forced parents to either pay hundreds of dollars outside of the program, or face increased challenges finding formula from WIC-approved retailers. Despite the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s increased flexibility to WIC participants, for parents who live paycheck to paycheck, the option to pay outside the program is not feasible.

However, the formula shortage is more than a supply-chain issue for some families as the impacts of racism make the struggle to access formula an everyday reality, not just one experienced during a national shortage.

The lingering effects of redlining—the discriminatory practice of denying a creditworthy applicant a loan for housing in a certain neighborhood based on the racial and ethnic demographic of the applicant—has systemically disenfranchised Black, Brown, Indigenous and other people of color’s communities by impacting systems of economics, housing, health and wealth.

Food security is one example how redlining has affected livelihood, health and well-being. The USDA defines food deserts as, “low-income census tracts with a substantial number of share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods.” Food deserts are more likely to be in communities that were once redlined. For example, white neighborhoods in Los Angeles have 3.2 and 1.7 times as many supermarkets as predominately Black and Latino areas, respectively.

This disparity in food access is linked to the inequitable investment in neighborhoods based on race—as white middle-class families left cities for suburbs, supermarkets followed the higher buying power, resulting in supermarket redlining or “supermarket investment in neighborhoods based on stereotypes and perceptions of income, race, and reputations.” Food deserts and supermarket redlining affect both rural (who are located further away from supermarkets) and urban (who face racial segregation and income inequality as barriers to food access) populations.

Food deserts impact food access, including access to formula. Qualifying for WIC can mean little if the family is unable to access a grocery store with qualified products, like formula, upon which families rely to nourish babies and/or to allow the mother to transition back to work. Combined with this inequitable food access, today’s supply-chain issues have turned a formula shortage into a crisis, particularly for Black and Latino families seeking to nourish their babies. The formula crisis is a racial justice issue.

President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate infant formula production, and Congress introduced bills to protect future supply disruptions. However, this cannot be the ceiling, merely the floor. Congress must take swift action to pass legislation enacting paid leave, USDA must expand WIC provisions to make formula more accessible and grocery stores must be incentivized to stay open in low-income neighborhoods. All in all, we must work to reverse the perverse impacts of racist policies in our country by holding policymakers accountable for anti-racist policies and holding equity firmly in the center of all decision making. 

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Shalini Raichur, MPH, CPH, is a health policy research associate for a nonpartisan research institution. She received her master’s of public health from George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, and her bachelor of science in public health from Saint Louis University.