'It's been really scary:' Mom worries about feeding baby as formula shortage continues

San Francisco Bay Area mothers say they're feeling the effects of the baby formula shortage.

During a round table Thursday in Santa Clara, one new mother told Congressman Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) that she has driven all over the South Bay to find formula for her 2-month-old son.

"It's been really scary," said Claire Lesikar, an attorney in Palo Alto. "My son, being two months old, he can only eat formula. I can't make something else for him. It's really disconcerting."

She said she spent several days to find extra formula at stories throughout the region and stockpiled a bunch of it.

But she says if the shortage continues for much longer, she doesn't know what she'll do. 

And Lesikar has it better than most. 

As parents across the United States struggle to find formula to feed their children, the pain is particularly acute among Black and Hispanic women. 

Black women have historically faced obstacles to breastfeeding, including a lack of lactation support in the hospital, more pressure to formula feed and cultural roadblocks. It’s one of many inequalities for Black mothers: They are far more likely to die from pregnancy complications, and less likely to have their concerns about pain taken seriously by doctors.

Low-income families buy the majority of formula in the U.S., and face a particular struggle: Experts fear small neighborhood grocery stores that serve these vulnerable populations are not replenishing as much as larger retail stores, leaving some of these families without the resources or means to hunt for formula.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of Black women and 23% of Hispanic women exclusively breastfeed through six months, compared to 29% of white women. The overall rate stands at 26%. Hospitals that encourage breastfeeding and overall lactation support are less prevalent in Black neighborhoods, according to the CDC.

The Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses also says Hispanic and Black women classified as low wage workers have less access to lactation support in their workplaces.

The racial disparities reach far back in America’s history. The demands of slave labor prevented mothers from nursing their children, and slave owners separated mothers from their own babies to have them serve as wet nurses, breastfeeding other women’s children.

In Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden leaders hosted his own roundtable of manufacturers ByHeart, Bubs Australia, Reckitt, Perrigo Co. and Gerber. Notably absence was Abbott Nutrition, whose Michigan plant was shut down in February over safety concerns, leading to the domestic shortage. The White House did not explain why Abbott was not included.

The meeting Wednesday was a chance to provide an update on what the administration is calling "Operation Fly Formula" to import formula and to use the Korean War-era production law to require suppliers to prioritize their orders in a bid to ease bottlenecks.

In recent weeks the government has imported foreign supplies and used the Defense Production Act to speed domestic production of infant formula. But those steps did not begin until mid-May, once retailers began rationing supplies and store shelves were emptying.

Biden said he was not briefed on the prospect of nationwide shortages of infant formula for about two months, and he acknowledged the strain on families as his administration struggles to address the situation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.