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Nantucket families among hardest-hit by baby formula crisis

"There's a huge gap in people who are qualifying for assistance and those who are actually low-income living on Nantucket," says Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe. 

The nationwide baby-formula shortage is hitting regional families hardest on Nantucket, where the federal poverty level is out of step with the island's skyrocketing cost of living.

A family of three must earn less than $40,000 a year to qualify for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). But Nantucket families making less than $76,000 are considered low-income.

That financial gap is threatening mothers who are often sacrificing their own healthcare expenses in order to afford to feed their babies, says Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe. Health Imperatives works to reduce reproductive healthcare disparities on the Cape, South Coast and Islands.

"On Nantucket, where people can make a relatively good salary, they could really and truly be living in poverty given the extraordinary cost of living there," Kehoe tells CAI's Patrick Flanary. "And so it becomes this really serious issue where low-income families are every day trying to figure out how to feed their children."

Patrick Flanary: We see empty shelves, but not everybody has the same access to drive store-to-store or go online for baby formula.

Julia Kehoe, CEO, Health Imperatives: This particular crisis is so serious because it impacts people of all income levels, including people who can go store-to-store and stock up. But for low-income people, this is the type of struggle that they have every single day. Health Imperatives runs the WIC program, which assists families with newborns, and a lot of people we serve rely on infant formula. Particularly on Nantucket, we've had challenges over the years with not having adequate formula, even for those who have the benefit to buy formula. So many low-income people aren't even eligible for assistance to buy formula which, with a shortage, is getting more and more expensive. And I think a perfect example of that is on Nantucket.

All of the government food-assistance and cash-assistance programs are based on the federal poverty level, which is the same across the country, so it doesn't take into account cost of living. So on Nantucket, where people can make a relatively good salary, they could really and truly be living in poverty given the extraordinary cost of living there. And so it becomes this really serious issue where low-income families are every day trying to figure out how to feed their children.

PF: Are you seeing the disparity highest on Nantucket?

JK: Absolutely. Even though we cover higher-poverty areas, we are so concerned about Nantucket in particular because the cost of living is so extreme. So, how can you afford to live there? There's a huge gap in people who are qualifying for assistance and those who are actually low-income living on Nantucket.

PF: What are parents telling you at Health Imperatives? I know you do so much when it comes to access to reproductive health.

JK: They're so overwhelmed. We're trying to help them increase, if they're able to, the amount that they breastfeed, or work with the state to get more formula. But the reality is they're only going to be eligible for WIC until their child is 5. And then it's a constant struggle to stay at that level of income where you can get any kind of benefit to feed your family. This is acute right now, but we're hearing the same things we've been hearing from families since Covid. The cost of living is increasing at such a rapid pace that people who make salaries over $100,000 a year are complaining about the cost of gas and food. So imagine someone making less than $40,000 worrying how they're going to possibly feed their family.

PF: I've been hearing from mothers who are being told to just breastfeed. That's a shortsighted view, isn't it?

JK: Absolutely. Less than 15% of mothers of infants that we serve breastfeed 100% of the time. Some of that is physical ability, and if they're working they can't do it 100% of the time. I think people don't have an understanding of the realities that women face, particularly low-income women, in trying to balance taking care of their families and working.

PF: What are mothers telling you about how they prioritize their lives now, when it comes to budgeting for medicine, insurance, gas?

JK: Mothers are sacrificing their own health for their babies. They're trying to meet their immediate needs and putting off things they think can wait, whether that's healthcare for themselves or their rent. This is what happens when, if there are one or two areas that are extremely expensive where people can't meet those needs, then something else gives. We are continuing things the same way so that in another five or 10 years, health disparities and racial-economic disparities are going to be worse.

PF: What is the short-term answer to that?

JK: There are lots of funds right now. And we are working with our representatives to look at this Covid-relief funding and be more flexible, and to inform necessary policy changes for the future.

A House of Representatives panel will meet Wednesday to discuss how to increase domestic production of baby formula.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.