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

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The United States suffers from serious baby food shortages, with the nationwide shortage rate rising to an alarming 43 percent. The shortage has prompted frantic parents to post pleas on online neighborhood networks. The shortage and the desperate parents trying to overcome it are reminiscent of the World War II era when infant feeding became a matter of government intervention.

Wartime conditions – particularly a demand for tin to make military equipment – led to shortages of infant formula, as tin was used to can condensed milk. This story offers a lesson as the government scrambles to address the infant formula shortage in 2022. Because such shortages hit vulnerable families hardest, efforts to overcome them will require widespread mobilization to ensure every child is fed.

By the 1920s, breastfeeding had fallen out of favor among all social classes. Infants who were not breastfed or who received a combination of breast and bottle and solid feeding 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 caros syrup. Some of these formulas used cow’s milk, which is now given to babies as late as one year old.

For much of the 20th century, babies began eating solid foods even by the fifth or sixth month. They ate an amazing variety of foods, according to a New York State Department of Health warning that “ham, bacon or pork, cabbage, pickles, tea, coffee or beer, bananas, berries, cake, candy or ice cream should not be eaten.” babies or young children.”

During World War II, however, the free market gave way to wartime emergency government controls. Just like their parents and siblings, this meant infants received ration cards from the government – after the food authority saw their birth certificate or a statement from a doctor or hospital. The toddler ration cards offered them 16 food points per week to spend on canned evaporated milk. This ensured babies had equal, albeit limited, access to the nourishment they needed. Because canned milk was a major food source for very young infants, some needed more than ration points allowed.

While the government did not ration liquid milk, it had to be mixed with syrup and diluted with boiled water to be part of a prescribed formula. More critically, it had to be refrigerated and not all families had refrigerators or ice boxes in the 1940s. In addition, in order to purchase the most desirable Grade A milk, families needed a prescription, and low-income families and those living outside the city often did not have the means to obtain these prescriptions. That forced them to buy grade C milk instead, which, while safe and genuine, was of inferior quality in terms of production, taste and fat content. Similarly, powdered milk could become part of the formula, but although the government did not ration it, a significant amount was sent overseas to feed the troops.

With rationing of canned evaporated milk, limited access to Grade A liquid milk, and general restrictions on getting produce from farm to factory to fork, families trying to follow medical advice on infant feeding have had difficulty accessing adequate to receive care for their babies. Some no doubt turned to the black market. In some cases, they turned to local charities. For example, Mrs. Border, 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, differences in access reflected income, race, and geography. The most amazing example of this was the Japanese-American detention camps. Shipments of baby food sent to the isolated camps have been limited or slow in arriving. The demand was great. Government reports revealed periodic shortages.

References to the conditions also appeared in camp newspapers, although these publications usually shied away from—or possibly were censored—criticizing camp conditions. For example, in 1942 the camp newspaper of Tule Lake, California, ran an article about the 450 bottles of milk prepared daily for the infants in the camp. It explained how a registered nurse and 11 Formula Aiders oversaw this work. It probably involved mixing liquid milk with syrup and sterile water.

The post-war memories of those who spent time in the camps told a clearer story. One woman recounted her young daughter’s repeated hospitalizations as a result of her being allergic to the powdered milk that was provided to her and the family being unable to afford to buy canned milk from outside the camp. Even when enough milk arrived at the camp to mix into formula, sometimes there wasn’t enough food for older babies.

During the war, parents who were not incarcerated had access to more government funding to help address infant feeding problems. They turned to the social media of their generation: radio. “Aunt Sammy,” the “wife” of “Uncle Sam,” had a radio show created by the United States Department of Agriculture that began airing in 1926. Aunt Sammy gave tips on housekeeping and nutrition. “Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes,” which you can now buy online, offered recipes for nutritious, inexpensive meals that proved particularly useful during the Great Depression. The Blue Network (once part of the NBC radio network until the Blue Network became the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC, in 1946) also aired a weekly show, “The Baby Institute,” which featured educators and doctors. Topics addressed on the show included ‘feeding babies in wartime’ and ‘milk in wartime’.

Other sources of advice abounded as well: the US Children’s Bureau and other experts provided basic infant feeding instructions and detailed information on formula mixing. They also explained to families how cow’s milk can be substituted for goat’s milk when babies are allergic to cow’s milk. Evaporated milk manufacturers and the Karo Syrup Company also communicated with buyers through print advertisements, distributing free pamphlets on how to prepare baby food, and sponsoring commercial radio shows. Parents welcomed this care advice.

If the condensed milk shortages of WWII reflected a supply chain issue — tin needed for troops overseas — our current state appears to reflect other supply chain issues, as well as contamination issues and product recalls. The Food and Drug Administration reports that it is working to fix this issue, members of Congress have called for action, and President Biden announced plans to speak directly with formula makers and take other action.

Rationing efforts during World War II, as well as government advice relied on by parents, revealed the collective interest in infant welfare centered on all babies. While this approach had its limitations—poor families in particular, and those incarcerated in Japanese-American detention camps, were vulnerable to infant starvation—solving today’s problem requires a reiterated focus on the collective good. This is the only way we can ensure that infants, including those with special needs and those from low-income families, have access to the nutrition they need. Because history teaches us that these families struggle more than others to provide for their babies.

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