The soaring cost of infant formula is forcing some parents to dilute the nutritional supplement with water or replace it with cow’s milk, say B.C. service providers who worry that price increases and continued shortages may be putting kids’ health at risk.
Statistics Canada data shows the average price of a 900-gram can of infant formula in B.C. has risen 23 per cent over the past year to $38.12 in September, up from $30.86 a year earlier.
“Moms will go without food themselves to buy formula,” said Karin Rempel, program director for Sardis Doorway in Chilliwack.
On Wednesday, the non-profit organization had enough formula for two “baby baskets,” hampers filled with supplies for parents struggling with rising costs. Staff regularly field calls from moms looking for help to buy formula and diapers.
Chilliwack parent Candace Green said she is not sure what she would do without the formula she receives through Sardis Doorway’s program for single moms.
“The (retail) price is ridiculous,” she said.
Green was unable to continue breastfeeding her 11-month-old baby a few months ago. Another mother told her a trick for making cheap infant formula.
“You get cans of evaporated milk and add some vitamins to it,” she said.
Green has never had to try it, but as the price of formula rose quickly through the spring and summer, she faced tough choices every time she got to the bottom of a can. She has had to switch brands several times, which was hard on her baby’s stomach.
Health Canada warns parents not to make homemade infant formula as it can put a baby’s health at risk. The same goes for other methods that local service providers sometimes see, such as diluting formula with water, using opened cans purchased online, or switching cow’s milk, evaporated milk or plant-based milks for formula before a baby’s system is old enough the handle them.
But in the absence of a reliable, affordable supply of formula, parents may be desperate, said Meghan Neufeld, executive-director of BabyGoRound, a non-profit that provides support to low-income families in the Lower Mainland. She estimated a month’s supply of high-quality formula could cost more than $600 a month.
“Early nutrition is key to the ability to thrive in a host of areas,” she said, explaining that prolonged poor feeding can put infant growth, development and even immunity at risk. “It’s a massive issue.”
Neufeld said some Lower Mainland food banks have a regular supply of formula, while others don’t, leaving moms in some communities with fewer options.
The organization has had a 70-per-cent increase in requests for breast pumps, she said, attributing it to the cost of formula. But studies show that lack of housing and good wages can make it more difficult for mothers to breastfeed.
“So the people who may need formula are also those most likely to not be able to afford it,” she said.
Food pricing expert Sylvain Charlebois said the price of formula has outpaced inflation and is at the top of the list of products that have seen the highest rise in prices.
Although formula represents something of a niche market because not everyone needs it, there may be a “moral reason to consider this product as essential for growing families,” said the professor with Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab.
High prices for formula have been partly linked to shortages after the closure of a U.S. manufacturing plant last year. Canada doesn’t make its own infant formula.
“U.S. manufacturers will always prioritize their own market first,” said Charlebois, who has been urging the Canadian government to find ways to become “more autonomous” and find a local solution.
While the Health Canada website notes supply has started to stabilize this fall, it’s unclear how that will effect prices. The federal government has made it easier for manufacturers to propose new products for temporary importation with an accelerated review process, in addition to reducing barriers to “market access.”
Between August and September, the average price of a can of formula in B.C. dropped about 40 cents, but remained above $38.
In Chilliwack, Green is thinking about weaning her baby off formula sooner than she would like to, but within health guidelines. With two older children, putting food on the table is “hard enough,” she said.
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