Why Isn’t Biden Doing More to Address the Baby Formula Shortage?

Women can’t just turn on their breasts like a free-flowing spigot of breast milk. It’s the kind of crisis that parents—both left and right—are going to remember this November.

Paul Hennessy/ZUMA

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It surprises me too, but damn it, I’ve got to agree with Tom Cotton here.

The Republican senator from Arkansas is normally poor at defining crises. Some of his favorites: immigration, Black Lives Matter protests, defense of the filibuster. But, on the current crisis surrounding the lack of baby formula across the country, Cotton is right. The government needs to take action.

Haven’t heard of the shortage? It’s nothing short of a disaster. 40 percent of formula stock has vanished. Fueled by persistent supply-chain issues and a recent recall from Abbott (one of the four biggest manufacturers of baby formula), retailers are starting to limit how much you can buy if you do happen to stumble upon a rare stash. I can say anecdotally that friends are panicking. At the risk of exposing myself as a pandemic hoarder, I’ll admit to recently buying five more cans than necessary out of fear that I’ll soon have to start regularly bidding on eBay in order to feed my 7-month-old son. That’s on top of relentless Covid dodging for the sake of my unvaccinated roommate (my baby) and flailing as a new parent in general.

For many women, breastfeeding is simply not an option. Some experience medical issues, which are common and wide ranging. For countless others, breastfeeding is an acute struggle that can make an already difficult post-partum journey infinitely more arduous. So, it shouldn’t be a tough thing to understand that most babies in the United States are not exclusively breastfed. Yet the ignorance is laid bare when people, particularly men, still reflexively point to the method as a kind of obvious solution to our current nationwide formula shortage.

It’s against this backdrop that the crisis doesn’t feel as though it’s receiving the kind of urgency with which parents are having to drive from Target to CVS to Walmart on any given day in search of a basic need (food) for their babies. Sure, it’s making a few headlines. But you’d think that babies on the brink of going hungry would give way to a giant federal response. Lawmakers demanding action. Everyday updates. 

I can’t help but think that isn’t the case simply because the shortage reads like a Woman’s Problem. As Jia Tolentino wrote in a terrific Mother’s Day essay, “the further you are from essential labor, the easier it is to forget, or never grasp, the worth and honor in that work.” The misguided notion that a woman could simply turn on her left breast like a kind of free-flowing spigot, coupled with a blanket ignorance of the basic understandings of how babies literally stay alive, is frankly embarrassing. But that’s the logical dead end to a society where, “the social and political potential of parenting is largely erased by this privatized vision of motherhood,” as Tolentino describes.

Still, ignorance is no excuse for inaction, particularly from those who know better. A failure to address an everyday struggle affecting countless parents, caregivers, and of course, literal humans who by definition rely on others for their basic needs is bound to give credence to the notion, fair or not, that life under the Biden administration just isn’t working out. That it sucks, that we’re living the ramifications of inflation, and the government seems a bit too chill about it. These emotions, whether rooted in fact or fiction, are the kinds of things people will remember this November when they ask themselves whether they’re satisfied with the current occupier of the White House.

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