Babies need formula now. It really is that simple

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It’s not just nothing beautiful that survives the discursive polarization endemic to American politics today; it’s nothing practical, too.

A formula shortage is causing hardships for American families centered on that most basic of familial and societal imperatives: keeping young babies nourished.

While it’s true that there are demographic discrepancies in formula usage, the more pressing truth is that American babies of all racial, ethnic, socio-economic, religious and geographic backgrounds will survive their earliest and most vulnerable months in the world by drinking baby formula. Formula, which has been around since the late 19th century but only became safe and widely available after World War II, is in large measure responsible for astronomical decreases in infant mortality.

So, this formula shortage is as collective an experience of deprivation as anyone could divine.

And yet, as in response to everything these days – no matter how apolitical it might seem to a rational person – a serious yet simple problem leads not to the impulse for collective action, but to the proliferation of individual soap boxes.

For some “breast is best” acolytes, the inability to rely on technological advances like formula should prompt a return to a model of motherhood in which every woman breastfeeds her own children, and society supports it. Never mind that such a time has never really existed. (There were – often enslaved – wet nurses for the babies of the wealthy, and too common starvation unto death for the babies of the poor.)

Meanwhile, for those on the right, the formula shortage is clearly a result of overregulation. And for those on the left, it is equally clearly a result of monopoly. Both arguments have merit; I don’t know which is correct. But I do know that this question ought to be utterly irrelevant to most of us amid the present crisis, which should be resolved as swiftly as possible before being considered as a case study from which to gain insights about economics, cultural conceptions of motherhood or anything else.

That it could be otherwise – that otherwise normal people could be more invested in “what this crisis says about me” (my infant feeding choices, my economic ideology and so on) than in its resolution – is the height of exactly the narcissism and decadence that are destroying our ability to solve all kinds of universal problems together.

After all, it doesn’t matter that much what kinds of books children are or are not being exposed to if, as is increasingly the case, they can’t read (a problem we could solve if we wanted to, and easily). It also doesn’t matter that much whether or not students wear masks in school if, as is worryingly common, they aren’t going to school anyway (a problem we could also solve, though it’d be harder).

In nearly every aspect of American life – perhaps particularly those centering on children – there are very serious, yet fundamentally mundane, problems in front of us. But, over and over, we do what we are doing amid this formula shortage: debate about what should be while ignoring what is. 

When parents are no longer struggling to find food to feed their babies, there will be ample time to spill (more) ink over whether breast is best, and to arrive at the old impasse: Breast isn’t best, empirically: Increased maternal IQ and education levels are each correlated with breast-feeding (the positive effects of which on outcomes like children’s IQ and body mass index disappear when you control for those variables). But breast might be best, experientially: The stories of moms who feel they and their babies gained something invaluable (even if that something can’t be objectively measured) from the nursing experience are stories that merit telling. So, rest assured, this conversation is not going anywhere.

There will also be ample time, once the shelves are again stocked with Similac, to worry about whether it was economic policies too unfriendly or too friendly to large corporate manufacturers that made the wealthiest nation in the world a formula desert in 2022. There are strong arguments for each side. And – so long as there are markets, economists, politicians and people who want to talk and write about all three – this old political debate is not going anywhere either.

I am going somewhere, however: to the nearest store, to see what kind of formula I can find. And then to a church with a nursery, to donate it. It’s not much, I know. But better to light a single candle than argue endlessly about who is to blame for the darkness.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew is a freelance writer focusing on culture, politics and religion. She is based in Philadelphia, Pa. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.

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