A 1200 mile road trip and no baby food to be found.  This is a nightmare |  Anna Gazmarian

A 1200 mile road trip and no baby food to be found. This is a nightmare | Anna Gazmarian

A 1200 mile road trip and no baby food to be found.  This is a nightmare |  Anna Gazmarian

l heard warnings of formula shortages shortly after the mask mandate was lifted in my North Carolina town. My family was delighted that life seemed to be returning to normal, that my eight-month-old daughter could finally see people’s faces in public, that I could comfort her with a smile at the supermarket. Our hopes were short-lived.

The original formula recall announced by the FDA in February didn’t include the brand we were using for our daughter, leading me to assume we wouldn’t be affected. Being a first-time mom already concerned about protecting her baby during the pandemic, I had nothing to worry about anymore. I thought the government would step in before families had to go out of their way to find food. We noticed the large empty spaces on the shelves in every store, but remained optimistic that help would arrive soon. Yet the shelves only got emptier.

Stores began to limit how much formula each customer could buy. I started getting frantic text messages from friends telling them to drive out of town to find a box of formula. In March, part of my routine was waking up early to check websites and drive to stores, most of which were empty by the time I arrived. Online mom groups were filled with women asking about homemade recipes and wondering if they could breastfeed. Homemade formula recipes — using raw cow’s milk, Karo corn syrup, and even tea — started circulating the internet. Our pediatrician warned me about these alternatives, but nothing was said to address the desperation that led parents to take these measures.

As my fear of meeting my daughter’s basic needs grew, I felt guilty about choosing a formula to start with; I have never tried to breastfeed because of my psychiatric meds. It didn’t help that so many people seemed to believe online that breastfeeding was an easy answer to the crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have sacrificed my sanity more to feed my child.

We normally last about a week with a bottle of formula; we were lucky enough to even find one a week on the shelves. I had panic attacks that the next box would not be found and we would be forced to use one of the ad hoc recipes online. My psychiatrist increased my medications to help me cope.

My mother-in-law agreed to look for a formula while driving from Nebraska to visit us. We relaxed a little: I’m sure there was a formula to be found on a 1,200-mile road trip. But we were wrong. There was no. Someone in our church offered us several boxes of expired formula from Germany. I’ve read from many health experts online that the nutrients in the formula start to break down over time and bacteria can develop in the formula after the expiration date – but we had no other options. I may be a first-time mom who needs to stop Googling everything, but I was desperate for someone to assure me that I was making the right choices and taking the right risks to keep my daughter alive.

The problem with taking formula that your child’s body has never ingested is that there’s always a chance it won’t be digested properly. The expired formula left my daughter constipated and miserable. It’s not just a matter of finding a branded formula that you can get your hands on. Like many others, my daughter has a sensitive stomach and various formulas have even contributed to her colic as a newborn.

I’ve built a network of moms who would search for my type of formula while I searched for theirs. That’s how we made it week after week. My gym became a delivery place where women exchanged containers. All this happened while my news feed was full of articles showing how little our politicians seem to care about the safety of women and children, even alive. The shelves of our closet remained empty.

My husband called our pediatrician to ask if we could supplement milk with whole milk, something we had postponed due to the risk of additional digestive problems. In the most severe cases, introducing cow’s milk too early can lead to intestinal bleeding. Our doctor instructed us to mix half the formula with milk and watch for signs of stomach upset. I tried to stay calm, even though everything we were doing felt like a grand science experiment just to keep our daughter fed. I wanted to trust my doctor, but it’s hard for me right now to trust authority figures with my child when our own government waited months to take action on the shortage, forcing us to fight to meet our most basic needs.

Fortunately, our daughter could tolerate the milk. But even with half the formula, we still struggle to find what we need. I recently had a friend in Boston send me three boxes that she found 30 minutes out of town. The support of my community is the only thing that makes me believe in my daughter’s future. I recognize that it is a luxury to even have a support system to help us get by.

Every day I count down to my daughter’s first birthday in July, when she can stop bottle feeding – when hopefully this crisis will be over for my family. But even this doesn’t bring much relief because I know how many others are still trapped in hopelessness.

  • Anna Gazmarian’s memoir on mental health, Southern culture, and evangelicalism comes out October 2023 from Simon & Schuster