When parents are struggling to feed their babies, why don’t all food banks offer formula? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

A resistance to making formula too easily available is patronising, shaming and dangerous

Since I had my baby in March, the cost of formula has hugely increased – some brands by as much as 22%. The vast majority of babies in Britain, mine included, are fed at least some formula by the age of six weeks, so inflation will have widespread repercussions. I wonder how those parents who rely solely on formula for their babies must be feeling if they are unable to pay.

Healthy start vouchers no longer cover the cost. Charities are warning that vulnerable parents may be forced to resort to unsafe practices, such as watering down formula or giving infants porridge. Parents tell me this is already happening. “I get £94 a week maternity pay. That’s not even my rent,” says one, who is struggling to afford formula.

Despite this, many food banks will not give out formula. Formula sales across Europe are governed by strict advertising regulations, in support of the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding promotion guidelines, which encourage exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months and continued breastfeeding for two years or longer. As such, initiatives that could be seen to encourage formula feeding are often met with strong resistance. Supermarkets cannot put it on special offer, and you can’t use loyalty points to buy it; one father told me of his humiliation at discovering this when he had no money and needed to feed his child.

Formula companies are not exactly known for their scrupulousness, as US shortages have demonstrated, and their marketing tactics can be aggressive. Why prices are being raised must be scrutinised. But nevertheless, I feel grateful for baby formula. Throughout human history, babies have needed supplementary feeding. To contemplate that parents in 2022 could be concocting their own, unsafe alternatives is heartbreaking.

That many food banks won’t distribute it is baffling. The position of Unicef UK – whose guidelines echo the World Health Organization’s and are followed by food banks, many NHS trusts and governmental and non-governmental organisations – frustrates me. Food banks handing out formula “can be a risky practice that can inadvertently cause harm”, according to the children’s charity, and food bank staff cannot support families “to feed their babies as safely as possible” in the same way trained professionals, such as health visitors and midwives, can. Their stance is that local authorities have a duty of care to ensure that vulnerable families are able to give their babies formula when they cannot pay. Food banks should point users in the direction of the relevant services.

Parents who can afford formula (which is legally available in supermarkets) are trusted to feed their babies safely, yet poor people are only expected to do so with the input of a medical professional. It is patronising, and will make parents feel even more stigmatised when they are already shamed. “The mentality of the public towards food banks and formula is atrocious,” one mother says. “The comments on the news are disgusting, ‘Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them.’”

Hungry babies don’t wait around for referrals, or for local authorities to provide formula to vulnerable families, or for the government to increase the value of healthy start vouchers. So while I agree that the provision should be there, we are in an emergency situation. Families are suffering as a result of a policy that could easily be rectified with a small amount of training for staff.

Though Unicef disagrees, I can’t help but feel that its views around formula are rooted in its controversial “baby-friendly” breastfeeding initiative, which has been criticised for its prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to encourage breastfeeding. One volunteer at a large inner-city Trussell Trust-seeded food bank told me of her frustration. Food banks in the Trussell Trust network are both independent and affiliated, but all of them receive guidelines based on those issued by Unicef. Instead of giving users donated formula, the centre passes milk on to a baby bank and people are referred there. But, the volunteer tells me, the baby bank is only open two mornings a week. “It is Christian paternalism which dictates that all women should breastfeed and assumes all babies have a cisgender mother who can and wants to,” she says. The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity, but says: “We do not campaign on health issues and we do not have a stance on breastfeeding or on other health issues.”

We saw the “just breastfeed your baby” discourse over shortages in the US, despite it making little social, economic or biological sense (you can’t just magic up a milk supply). While I don’t think this is the explicit narrative here – Unicef says it supports all families however they choose to feed their child – a resistance to making formula too easily available seemingly has underpinnings in breastfeeding initiatives.

I spoke to the Trussell Trust, which was robust in its assertion that food banks are independent and that these are only guidelines (Unicef also said this). But it also said that most food banks do follow them, which seems like a cop-out.

I hope that some food bank managers rethink their stance, and note that Unicef says immediate cash grants could be given so that users can buy their own formula. Formula is safe and parents do not need expert assistance to feed their babies food that is legally available. As the volunteer I spoke to said: “Sadly, all we are doing is making starving parents jump through more hoops to feed their children. It’s no surprise formula is one of the most stolen items in supermarkets. I’m continually upset and disgusted at this horrible policy.”

What’s working

Despite having missed most of his baby swimming classes due to illness, my son has taken to it like a fish to water. My husband says it was amazing seeing him swim underwater, and he loved it. Was it worth the preposterous amount it ended up costing? The instructors are great, but we have learned our financial lesson about pre-booked classes. Considering the far cheaper, but sadly much chillier, leisure centre.

What’s not

Two hospital stays in less than a month, and what might be the beginning of another virus, have me on edge about Christmas socialising. All I want by this point is for him to be well, and if that means jettisoning some plans then so be it, but it’s quite lonely. I’m looking forward to being able to see family soon.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author of The Year of the Cat, which will be published in January 2023


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

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