Lessons from World War II can help us overcome the shortage of infant formula

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The United States is suffering from a severe shortage of infant formula, with the nationwide stock-out rate climbing to an alarming 43%. The shortage has prompted frantic parents to post pleas on online neighborhood networks. The shortage, and the desperate parents trying to overcome it, echoes the days of World War II, when infant feeding became a matter of government intervention.

Wartime conditions – most notably a demand for tin to make military equipment – ​​led to a shortage of infant formula as the tin was used for canning condensed milk. This story offers a lesson as the government strives to address the shortage of infant formula in 2022. As these shortages hit vulnerable families the hardest, efforts to overcome them require full mobilization to ensure each infant is fed.

By the 1920s, breastfeeding had fallen out of favor in all social classes. Infants who were not breastfed or who received a combination of breast and bottle and solid foods typically consumed canned sweetened condensed milk, the most popular being Bordon’s Eagle Brand Baby Milk. Other families used a homemade formula usually consisting of condensed milk, water and karo syrup. Cow’s milk, which today is not given to babies until they are one year old, has been used in some of these formulas.

For most of the 20th century, babies also started eating solid foods in their fifth or sixth month. They consumed an astonishing variety of foodstuffs, as evidenced by a warning from the New York State Department of Health that “ham, bacon or pork, cabbage, pickles, tea, coffee or beer, bananas, berries, cakes, candies or ice cream should not be given to babies or small children.

During World War II, however, the free market gave way to emergency wartime government controls. Just like their parents and siblings, this meant infants received government ration books – after the ration board saw their birth certificate or a statement from a doctor or hospital. Infant ration books provided them with 16 ration points per week to spend on canned condensed milk. This ensured that babies had equal, albeit limited, access to the food they needed. Since canned milk was the primary food source for very young infants, some needed more than the allowed ration points.

Although the government did not ration fluid milk, it had to be mixed with syrup and diluted with boiled water to become part of a prescribed formula. More importantly, it required refrigeration, and not all families had refrigerators or coolers in the 1940s. Also, to buy the most sought after Grade A milk, families needed a prescription, and low-income families and those living outside cities often could not afford these ordinances. This forced them to buy Grade C milk instead, which, although safe and unadulterated, was substandard in terms of production, taste and fat content. Similarly, powdered milk could be part of infant formula, but although the government did not ration it, a substantial amount was sent overseas to feed the troops.

Faced with rationing of canned condensed milk, limited access to Grade A fluid milk, and general limitations on transporting produce from farm-to-factory to table, families attempting to follow medical advice on the feeding infants struggled to access sufficient supplies for their babies. Some have no doubt turned to the black market. In some cases, they turned to local charities. Ms. Border, for example, a mother of six, received free milk from the New York City Charity Organization Society for her children born in 1943 and 1945.

Then, as now, disparities in access reflected income, race and geography. The most startling example of this came in the Japanese American incarceration camps. Supplies of baby food sent to isolated camps were limited or slow to arrive. The demand was great. Government reports have revealed periodic shortages.

Clues to the conditions also emerged in camp newspapers, though these publications generally avoided — or may have been censored — criticism of camp conditions. The Tule Lake, California camp newspaper, for example, published an article in 1942 about the 450 bottles of milk prepared daily for infants at the camp. He explained how a registered nurse and 11 “formula helpers” supervised this work. Presumably, this involved mixing liquid milk with syrup and sterile water.

The post-war memories of those who spent time held in the camps tell a clearer story. A woman reported the repeated hospitalizations of her baby daughter due to the fact that she was allergic to the powdered milk supplied to her and the family could not afford to buy canned milk outside the camp. Even when enough milk arrived at the camp to be mixed with formula, there was sometimes not enough food for the older babies.

During the war, parents who were not detained had access to more state resources to deal with infant feeding issues. They turned to the social media of their generation: the radio. “Aunt Sammy”, the “wife” of “Uncle Sam”, had a radio program created by the United States Department of Agriculture which was broadcast in 1926. Aunt Sammy offered advice on household management and food. “Aunt Sammy’s Recipes Radio,” which you can now buy online, featured nutritious, inexpensive meal recipes that proved particularly useful during the Great Depression. The Blue Network (formerly part of the NBC radio network until the Blue Network became American Broadcasting Company, or ABC, in 1946) also aired a weekly program, “The Baby Institute”, featuring educators and doctors. Among the topics discussed on the show were “Feeding Babies in Wartime” and “Milk in Wartime”.

Other sources of advice also abounded: the US Children’s Bureau and other experts provided basic instructions on infant feeding and detailed information on mixing formulas. They also explained to families how to substitute goat’s milk for cow’s milk if the babies were allergic to the latter. Condensed milk manufacturers and the karo syrup company also communicated with buyers with print advertisements, distributing free pamphlets on how to prepare baby food, and as sponsors of commercial radio shows. Parents have welcomed this child care advice.

If the condensed milk shortages of World War II reflected a supply chain problem – the tin needed for troops overseas – our current situation seems to reflect other supply chain problems, as well as problems contamination and product recalls. The Food and Drug Administration reports it is working to address this issue, members of Congress have called for action, and President Biden has announced plans to speak directly with formula makers and take further action. .

The rationing efforts during World War II, along with the government advice on which parents relied, revealed the collective interest in infant welfare, centered on all babies. While this approach has its limitations — in particular, it has left poor families and those held in Japanese American incarceration camps vulnerable to childhood hunger — solving today’s problem requires focusing on the good. collective. Only then can we ensure that infants, including those with special formula needs and those from low-income families, have access to the nutrition they need. Because history tells us that these families, more than others, have difficulty taking care of their babies.


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