How to solve the baby formula and infant food insecurity crisis in Canada

Are infant food banks the solution to access-to-food issues for new parents? Or a signal of a much deeper problem in this country?

Maclean's staff
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Infant formula accounts for 22 per cent of all Canadian dairy imports from the U.S.

It’s difficult to imagine a more crucial and emotionally freighted product than baby formula, which is critical for infants who are too young for solid food or cow’s milk, have special nutritional needs, and for whom breastfeeding isn’t an option. In recent months, infant formula shortages have left American store shelves bare and parents scrambling. Similar issues are beginning to be felt in Canada, where we source our formula mainly from the U.S., from three companies—Abbott, Nestle, and Mead Johnson—that have roughly 90 per cent of the market share. 

The baby formula shortage has been making headlines in recent months. In February, an Abbott production facility in Michigan was forced to close its doors when two children died as a result from bacterial infection at the plant. Factor in longer-term supply issues stemming from the pandemic and reduced stock in the supply chain has turned a critical item into a scarcity. 

But the problem of infant food insecurity has been a longstanding issue for countless Canadians, says Dr. Lesley Frank, Canada Research Chair in food, health and social justice at Acadia University and author of Out of Milk: Infant food insecurity in a rich nation

As Canadians turn to any means necessary to source baby formula—including social media—there’s one source growing in need: infant food banks, where communities band together to provide critical stop-gap solutions to a pressing issue. 

The idea: Infant food banks specifically for baby formula and other early child nutritional needs.

How it works: Canadian food banks are already an important resource for families. In 2021 alone children accounted for more than 434,000 visits to food banks across the country. 

In order to meet their child’s nutritional needs, which Frank points out happen to be far greater during the first 1000 days than at any other point in life, unfettered access to formula during the earlies months and years is essential. Specially-focused donation and distribution centres are one way to make this a reality. 

“Infant food banks,” says Frank, “are specifically suited around baby needs like formula.” They are volunteer and community-led initiatives that ensure a supply of necessary baby foods— Sudbury, Ontario’s Pregnancy Care Centre & Infant Food Bank, for example, has been around since 1996 and relies mainly on formula donations from the public. Above all, the success of infant food banks are based on the generosity and resourcefulness of a community. 

For essential items like formula—for which there is often no nutritional substitute—establishing more food banks geared toward mothers of infants can help link infants to food sources during unforeseen shortages like we are currently experiencing.  

The big picture: The presence of infant food banks would certainly help parents access formula during periods of shortages like this. But it’s a band-aid solution to a far greater problem. 

“The community is responding because nobody else has,” says Frank, who authored a paper titled Finding formula: Community-based organizational responses to infant formula needs due to household food insecurity. “Canada has not acknowledged the issue, or had any response to the issue.”

The U.S. manufacturers that Canada relies upon are beginning to return to normal levels of production and the supply is expected to be replenished soon enough. But that will still leave countless numbers of Canadians and single mothers challenged by infant food insecurity—a problem that Frank argues will continue to persist so long as greater economic measures are taken to support mothers of infants.

“The fact that there are infant food banks in Canada—that they even exist—is a signal to the fact that we have a serious problem in this country.” Frank calls infant food banks “the most downstream solution you could find. So I would be looking for upstream solutions that are about economic security for families.” 

The notion of economic supports for parents and new families is hardly unheard of. The Canada child benefit (CCB), for example, provides monthly payments to eligible parents. But Frank would like to see more enhanced supports tailored to those earliest years in order to help reduce the barriers to infant formula for all Canadians.

In Newfoundland, for example, there exists a nutrition-focused benefit attached to the CCB. Other countries, she notes, have gone down pathways surrounding access-to-food issues. In the United States, for example, the government provides food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides foods like formula. (Fun fact for your next trivia night: The U.S. government is actually the biggest purchaser of infant formula in the world). 

But Frank argues that no matter the supply status—which has only exacerbated the problem—too many Canadians are struggling to meet their infant’s basic needs. In an extensive 2020 study she conducted across Nova Scotia, Frank concluded that “minimum wage and income security programs are inadequate for the purchase of a basic nutritious diet through the prenatal, perinatal, and early infancy periods…emphasizing the risk of food insecurity as a critical issue for young families facing income constraints.” 

“What I would like to see,” says Frank, “ is people have livable wages, adequate maternity leave and access to maternity leave in order to be able to actually do the labour that’s required to feed your baby— because it is labour, whether you’re breastfeeding or not.” 

This story is part of a series on food insecurity in Canada funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada.