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Infant formula shortage should help us reassess our priorities

In one form or another, infant formula has been on the market in the United States since the late 1800s, and it’s been readily available for generations of families that have come to rely on it.

But like so many things in the last two pandemic-dominated years, formula has become harder to come by and, in recent weeks, the shortage has reached a crisis point. Store shelves have been stripped bare, and it has led moms and dads in even the most affluent households to bite their nails. However, this emergency has been particularly brutal for low-income families who have been grappling with escalating prices and who might not have access to a range of grocery stores. Some of these same families have also turned to diaper or food banks for formula or supplies, and those outlets have been hit hard by diminishing supplies.

If there is any potential silver lining to be had from the formula shortage, it’s the possibility that it will bring into relief how many American families are living on the edge of hunger. For these families, wondering how their children will be fed is not a nerve-rattling inconvenience or a temporary state of affairs but a familiar, demoralizing part of their daily lives.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a little more than 10 million children were in households deemed food insecure before the start of the pandemic. Black and Hispanic children were twice as likely to be in food insecure households than white children, and the overwhelming majority of children who are in households where it’s a struggle to afford food have at least one parent or guardian in the workforce.

And the impact of hunger stretches beyond children and their families. John Williams, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, pointed out in a speech last year, “Food insecurity is becoming more widespread – and more difficult to resolve. The ripple effects expand across the economy, as food insecurity drives economic inequality, which in turn is a barrier to cultivating a healthy workforce.”

We’ve just finished a primary election season where many candidates stubbornly focused on issues that don’t ultimately matter much beyond riling up the most rabid zealots. Why do we focus on such things when large numbers of American families are struggling to pay for child care, cover housing or health care costs, and, yes, provide food for their children?

We need to rethink our priorities. In a nation as wealthy as ours, no child should have anything less than a full stomach.

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