Very few days of my previous career stick with me like the one I am about to share. At the time, I didn’t realize to what extent that day would change my opinion and outlook on many things.
A couple brought their very ill young infant to the emergency room. I was called down to do blood work which was standard procedure. After having a difficult time drawing the blood I returned to the lab to run the tests & analyze the results, hoping to shed some light on why this infant was so ill.
Some of the initial tests gave results that led to further testing. One of these further tests was a “blood smear”, where we smear blood onto a slide and look at it under a microscope. As I was looking at the smear, I started to think that something was wrong with my equipment or my reagents; something was greatly wrong. My blood smear looked like something I had never seen before. I made a new slide and the same thing happened. I changed all the reagents that could be contributing to the bizarre results. each test gave the same outcome. I needed to accept that this was how this child's smear was. This told me why he was so ill. The baby’s treatment continued. Testing continued. My shift ended.
I returned the next evening still thinking about this infant and wondering if we had any more answers. I wasn’t prepared for what I heard and couldn’t believe it when I heard it; the infant has passed away, and the cause of death was malnutrition. He had been fed Coffee Mate and water in place of infant formula. I asked myself, as you may be asking yourself, how does this happen?
It turns out it happened, because the family became dependent on the food bank for food, including infant formula. When there was a shortage of infant formula, the parents decided to substitute with Coffee Mate and water. Some will say that it was because they were illiterate and didn’t know the difference. Some would say it was because it resembled infant formula. Some will say it’s because a milk-like product equals milk-like product.
This experience stays with me, and I reflect on and react to the action of infant formula being distributed at the food bank. Food security is a basic need, and, for an infant, it’s one of the few things they need and they need often.
How does formula get to the food bank? Often the samples that are sent to new parents end up there. Women who choose to -and successfully- breastfeed then have these cans and bottles of formula sitting in their homes in dark cupboards, on top of the fridge, and other out of the way places. They know they will never use it, but the idea of letting it go to waste or ending up in the garbage isn’t something they want. They think about all the moms who have less than they do, less support to breastfed and use the food bank - and think that if they take it there, they can help a mom. Moms who need the food bank go there, they say that formula is available, and they take it. That helps the family budget. Formula is expensive and is likely a large part of the financial stress of the family. What’s wrong with that? The samples don’t come consistently and frequently enough to sustain the food bank supply. There will be times when the food bank doesn’t have a supply of formula but the mothers are assuming it will be available so the income gets budgeted to other items. Now, the food bank has no formula, and the family has no money. They still need to feed the baby.
In my ideal dream world, the supports these families would receive would be breastfeeding support as well as prenatal and postnatal education. Breastmilk is virtually free. With even suboptimal nutrition, mothers still produce a perfect, free food for their infants. Infants can be sustained for a significant amount of time on just breastmilk.. The recommendation from WHO and CPA is 6 months exclusively and then continued to two years or beyond, with the introduction of solids at around 6 months. In the event of a food crisis, a mother could sustain her infant for the better part of its first year through breastfeeding alone.
The support aspect would be important for that to happen. These mothers also need the education. Many of them believe that without an optimal diet, their breastmilk isn’t good for their baby and that formula is better. All mothers want the best for their babies. They need to be taught that they’re what’s best for their babies. They also need to be taught what normal infant behaviour is. If they don’t understand normal infant behaviour , they may feel like they’re starving their baby. Without access to infant formula, they would likely plug along and make it work. With formula being free and on the shelf at the food bank, however, they may grab it and feed that to the baby. Many of us know, when we start supplementing, we can quickly lose that breastfeeding relationship. The food bank may continue to have formula or they may not and we end up in situation like the above. How do we feed the baby in this situation?
The staff at the food bank could use some education on breastfeeding and formula feeding. Many of them may still hold the belief that mothers with a low-quality diet shouldn't breastfeed, that it isn’t good for them or their baby. When formula is available, they may encourage that to a mother who’s breastfeeding because of this belief.
Don't get me wrong here; the issue isn’t the people donating the formula to the food bank. They have good intentions and likely don’t realize the damage that can be done. The issue here is that this is exactly one of the things the formula companies want to happen. They want their products in the hands of the vulnerable new mother and father. This is why they send packages out, and they do it in the manner of “Breastfeeding is best; however when the time comes, introduce formula”. If the time comes to introduce it and continue with it, you will buy the kind that was free and came with coupons and other swag items like a backpack or change mat. It’s all marketing. How free do you think all that stuff was to produce and mail out? Not free at all; in fact, it’s in the high price of the formula. Let’s look at what formula is and why it costs so much. Those sending it out are a business and they need to make a profit. After all the free packages they give away, they need to increase the cost of formula drastically to make a profit. They’re so profitable, in fact, that not only are they giving parents free stuff, they buy the names and contact info of parents from the likes of maternity stores and giving all kinds of free stuff to hospitals and doctors’ offices. When a family legitimately needs formula, it’s so drastically overpriced that it creates hardships for them.
What do I suggest we do with the free samples? I suggest they be returned to the stores where they came from with a note explaining why it’s being returned. Imagine if just a small percentage of moms did this. Would the stores start to think twice about their partnerships if they had a large number of packages to deal with?
Another option is return to sender. I don't think this would have near the impact as the above option, but it would show them that you don’t want their products.
As far as the moms who need the additional supports and are at higher risk of needing to use formula, there’s a better way to help those mothers feed their babies safely and reliably.
This should go without saying, but the need to say it is always there. This isn’t about formula vs breast milk, nor about a mother’s choice to breastfeed or not. This is about an infant’s right to quality nutrition and food security, one of the basic hierarchical needs of the human race and a primary building block of children's futures. Breastfeeding can almost always guarantee an infant and child can be sustained.