Farmworker women face obstacles in finding formula for their babies

Farmworker women face obstacles in finding formula for their babies

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For years, Rosa Diaz helped put food on America’s table, working five days a week picking squashes, squashes and other vegetables in the fields around Homestead, Florida. But lately, she has been having trouble feeding her own child.

Nine-month-old Jennifer lives almost exclusively on baby formula, which remains hard to find even a month after President Biden announced extraordinary measures to help ease shortages across the country. Diaz, 30, who does not have a car, is often forced to pay for trips to go from store to store for the yellow cans of Enfamil that her daughter drinks.

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

“My pediatrician told me to boil the 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 keeps moving, bending down to pick up the toys and put them in a container while she goes into the apartment’s small kitchen to take inventory. “I can’t find enough formula. I used to go to a store to find it.”

The crisis that has left parents across the country scrambling to find formula for their babies drags on, dealing a particular blow to low-income families, including farmworker communities like Homestead. While wealthier parents turn to expensive European brands or search the Internet, sometimes willing to pay exorbitant markups when they find what they need, mothers, Diaz included, are often forced to rely on whatever variety they can find in their local stores, even if sudden dietary changes make their babies sick. Others turn to homemade options that pediatricians have warned can be dangerous for babies.

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

Formula makers have ramped up production and shortages are expected to ease in the coming weeks. But progress is often two steps forward, one step back: This month, a recently reopened formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan, whose closure had been at the center of the shortage, closed again after storms caused flooding at the facility. . Across the country, progress in 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 research firm IRI.

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In Homestead, a farming 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 Farmworker 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, most from Mexico.

Many depend on formula when their children are babies, some by choice, but many because they spend long days in the fields where it is difficult, if not impossible, to breastfeed or express milk to maintain their milk supply.

“Female farmworkers always get 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 women are crouched in a field for six to nine hours a day, there is no opportunity to express breast milk or bring 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 baby, Victoria. A single mother who lives in a rented trailer with her daughter and three boys, ages 5, 7 and 10, Funez says he earns about $80 a day and doesn’t have the time or money to take on this new challenge.

After working a 10- or 11-hour shift, she takes her children and goes out to get formula, traveling up to 45 minutes and paying up to $50 a can, she said. He said that at first he breastfed Victoria, but then he couldn’t do it anymore. He has tried to switch brands when he 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 formula shortages because they are not eligible for certain food safety net programs. But even legally residing immigrants are often hesitant to take advantage 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 receiving public assistance will prevent them from legally living and working in this country.

Many food charities in agricultural areas have been unable to obtain formula to give to families in need, said Melissa Acedera, executive director of Polo’s Pantry, a food charity in Southern California. She has been providing baby formula and baby diapers to nonprofits in the Coachella Valley, including the National Farmworker Alliance, for several months.

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

There is a shortage of grocery stores in neighborhoods and farming communities, so some of the corner stores can charge exorbitant prices, Sorrel said.

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“The level of access farmworkers have to these necessities just doesn’t exist,” he said. “And they do not have salaries to pay what is charged. We are raising funds specifically to buy formula.”

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

Language barriers can also complicate farmworkers’ ability to find what their families need. This population is also susceptible to scams, said Mily Treviño-Sauceda, executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a farmworker advocacy organization. Fears of complaining to authorities can leave them especially exposed, he 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 is often too far away with no transportation or such high gas prices. Some will use public transportation, but there aren’t enough routes,” she said, so they often have to pay the sky-high “shortage” prices that small independent stores charge for formula.

Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is calling on the FTC and the Department of Justice to account for those who have left some of the most vulnerable workers in the country without resources.

“It gives me chills to think about how bad these families are,” Treviño-Sauceda said.

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