This is a text group or social media page full of recommendations for the latest store with stocked shelves. It’s about driving hour after hour, racking up miles on the car and filling up the gas tank, going to store after store and coming out empty-handed. He is sometimes hungry.
For parents of infants in America, this is the new reality. The shortage of infant formula in the country has left families desperate to find ways to feed their children, and student parents are no exception. As federal, state and local governments look for ways to help, experts say institutions should support their student parents through this crisis by listening to their needs and finding creative ways to share resources, especially during the coming summer months.
“Student parents are more likely to have low income, struggle with basic needs like housing or food insecurity, and they experience extreme time poverty between work, school and caregiving. “, said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation. Hope, an organization that provides direct support to student parents and encourages systemic change.
“If you’re a parent and you have to choose between food on the table, formula or whatever, and education, you’ll always choose the food on the table,” Lewis said. “The whole picture is not just that [students] can’t afford [formula], is that they can’t find it. This will have a huge impact on families and their education.
The shortage, caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues and the temporary closure of the Abbott formulas plant in Michigan, has reduced U.S. inventory by nearly 50%, according to Datasembly, a data firm. The Biden administration and Food and Drug Administration are adjusting to allow import formula from other countries, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s assistance program for young poor families, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), accepts more waivers on some of its most common restrictions, like brand and amount.
“We know that student parents are more likely to be women of color, often single or heads of households,” said Ali Caccavella, senior learning specialist at the Hope Center, a research center based at the University. Temple that works to make higher education more efficient and equitable. Caccavella co-authored a February 2022 dissertation on college parenting that broke down student-parent demographics.
“[The formula shortage] only adds another layer of unacceptable rates of basic needs insecurity,” Caccavella said. “We see, heartbreakingly, that this is more likely to impact students who are systemically marginalized.”
According to the report, 70% of all student-parents experience food or housing insecurity or homelessness, but between 85% and 90% of Black and Latino student-parents experience basic needs insecurity. A quarter of student parents of color could not feed their children balanced meals due to financial insecurity. Ten percent (10%) of parents of Asian, Black, and Latina students said they would reduce the size of family meals, skip meals, or not eat for an entire day, due to financial hardship.
Rising gas prices have further complicated the financial situation of student parents, who are more likely to struggle to find stable transportation. Generation Hope helps students with the cost of gas and connects them with neighborhoods that have pooled boxes of formula in a joint effort to ensure no baby goes hungry.
As the federal government brings more formula to the states, Lewis is coordinating with the White House to ensure these resources are shared with the communities that need them most. Some communities of color, Lewis said, may be wary of federal supplies, following a history of government-mandated medical abuse and oppression. That’s why Lewis hopes local higher education institutions can bridge the gap.
Some institutions have used a federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grant to build or fund child care centers on their campuses. Lewis and Caccavella said these hubs could potentially be great places to target and distribute formula as it arrives.
Lewis also reached out to Howard Community College President Dr. Daria Willis, asking if her campus would be willing to help distribute readiness supplies once they reach Maryland State. Willis easily agreed.
Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland has a history of helping student parents access comprehensive resources through its Career Links program, which offers a pantry, lending library, mental health, school counseling and help with supplies like formula and diapers. Students are inducted into the program in cohorts, so they are immediately introduced to one another for community support.
Willis said institutions, especially community colleges, should come together to find solutions to the crisis. By providing the necessary supports for student-parents, Willis said, institutions serve not only the enrolled student, but the next generation — Willis calls this a “two-generation approach.”
“If your kid is watching you go to college, they know the opportunity is there,” Willis said.
Willis was a student mother herself. Having worn these shoes, she knows how invisible a student parent can feel right now.
“[Student parents] are not visible enough. The higher education system is structured so that you don’t see them or other people until something comes up and smacks you,” Willis said. “We need to do a better job as college administrators to shine a light on these students.”
Liann Herder can be contacted at [email protected]