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Formula shortage adds to financial crunch for farmworker families

The cans are more expensive these days. So are the trips from store to store to find them.

Rosa Diaz, shown with 9-month-old daughter Jennifer at home in Homestead, Fla., used to find Enfamil formula by going to just one store. Now she has to hire someone to drive her to many stores, sometimes without finding the product. (Saul Martinez for The Washington Post)
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For years, Rosa Diaz helped put food on America’s table, working five days a week picking squash, pumpkin and other vegetables in the fields around Homestead, Fla. But lately, she has had trouble feeding her own child.

Nine-month-old Jennifer lives almost entirely on baby formula, which remains difficult to find even a month after President Biden announced extraordinary measures to help alleviate a nationwide shortage. Diaz, 30, who doesn’t own a car, is often forced to pay for rides to go store to store to hunt down the yellow cans of Enfamil her daughter drinks.

Last week, Diaz’s husband found a single container, enough to last about three days. After it runs out, she’s not sure what they’ll do.

“My pediatrician told me to boil vegetables and puree them,” said Diaz, a mother of three who stopped working outside the home after Jennifer was born. With the baby on her hip, Diaz stays in motion, stooping to pick up toys and put them in a bin as she zips into the apartment’s small galley kitchen to take stock. “I can’t find enough formula. I used to just go to one store to find it.”

The crisis that has left parents across the country scrambling to find formula for their babies is dragging on, packing a particular punch for low-income families, including in farmworker communities such as Homestead’s. While wealthier parents turn to costly European brands or comb the internet, sometimes willing to pay exorbitant markups when they find what they need, mothers including Diaz are often forced to rely on whatever variety they can find in their local stores, even if the abrupt dietary changes make their babies sick. Others are turning to homemade options that pediatricians have warned can be unsafe for infants.

The difficulties experienced by low-income women add to the financial burdens caused by inflation. Diaz now pays $21 a can for formula that used to cost $14, she said. She says she gets a few cans a month from the food-assistance program WIC, but Jennifer drinks 12. The repeat trips to stores takes a financial toll in an era of $5 gas. And in an agricultural area where everything is spread out, the rides are not short. They also are frequently fruitless.

Formula makers have stepped up production, and it is expected the shortage will ease in the coming weeks. But progress is often two steps forward, one step back: This month, a recently reopened formula plant in Sturgis, Mich., whose closure had been at the heart of the shortage closed again after storms caused flooding at the facility. Across the country, progress restocking retail stores remains slow: Store shelves were 76.5 percent stocked for the week ending June 12, down slightly from the previous week, according to the research firm IRI.

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In Homestead, an agricultural area south of Miami, many of those struggling to feed their children are farmworkers. About half of farmworkers report living with minor children, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, compared to a quarter of adults overall. About a third of farmworkers are women, according to the survey. Most farmworkers are of reproductive age, and 8 in 10 are Hispanic, with most from Mexico.

Many are reliant on formula when their children are infants — some by choice, but many because they spend long days in the fields where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to breastfeed or pump to keep up their milk supply.

“Farmworker women are always getting the short end of the stick, and there are so many levels of disadvantage,” said Rick Nahmias, founder of Food Forward, a California food nonprofit. “They deal with sexual harassment and the burden of raising children. And because the women are crouched in a field for six to nine hours a day, there’s no opportunity to pump breastmilk or to get milk to their children.”

Farmworker Elia Funez, 34, picks pumpkins, corn and squash in Homestead. Like Diaz, she has had trouble finding formula for her 5-month-old, Victoria. A single mother living in a rented trailer with her daughter and three boys, ages 5, 7 and 10, Funez says she makes about $80 a day and doesn’t have the luxury of time or money to face this new challenge.

After working a 10- or 11-hour day, she grabs her kids and goes on the hunt for formula, traveling as far as 45 minutes away and paying as much as $50 per can, she said. She said she breastfed Victoria at first, but then was no longer able to do so. She has tried switching brands when she has managed to find them, she said, but they often make Victoria sick, she said.

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Undocumented workers have found themselves at a particular disadvantage amid the formula shortage because they are not eligible for certain food safety-net programs. But even lawfully residing immigrants often hesitate to avail themselves of these programs because of a Trump-era “public charge” rule, which threatened to deny green cards to immigrants who used food stamps or other public benefits. The Biden administration rescinded the public charge rule last year, but many immigrants still worry that taking public assistance will impede their ability to live and work legally in this country.

Many food charities in agricultural areas have not been able to obtain formula to give to needy families, said Melissa Acedera, the executive director of Polo’s Pantry, a food charity in Southern California. She has been providing nonprofit organizations in the Coachella Valley, including Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, with baby formula and diapers for infants for several months.

“We really felt it as soon as the shortage hit,” Acedera said. “We literally did the shopping ourselves. I went to 10 different stores, and I could only get 15 cans, because they all had limits [on how many cans shoppers could buy]. Target and Walmart had bare shelves.”

There is a dearth of food stores in agricultural neighborhoods and communities, so some of the corner stores are able to charge extortionate prices, Acedera said.

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“The level of access farmworkers have to these necessities is just not there,” she said. “And they don’t have the wages to afford what is being charged. We are fundraising specifically to buy formula.”

The Federal Trade Commission recently launched an inquiry to determine whether small and independent retailers faced particular difficulties accessing limited formula supplies compared to larger chains, and to identify online scams.

Language barriers also can complicate farmworkers’ ability to find what their families need. This population also is susceptible to scams, said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, the executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an advocacy organization for female farmworkers. Fears about complaining to the authorities can leave them especially exposed, she said.

“These women say they go to mom-and-pop convenience stores, the only stores nearby, and often much more expensive than going to a supermarket, which are often too far away without a ride, or with gas prices so high. Some will use public transportation, but there aren’t enough routes,” she said, so they often have to pay the sky-high “scarcity” prices that small independent stores are charging for formula.

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is asking the FTC and the Justice Department to hold accountable those who have left some of the country’s most vulnerable workers without recourse.

“It gives me chills to think of how bad it is with these families,” Treviño-Sauceda said.

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