ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson has always been a doer — so when the activist and mother heard about the baby formula shortage, she galvanized other mom friends to help.
The Chicagoland Baby Formula Collection Project‘s participants are collecting unopened, unexpired baby formula from local parents. Knott-Dawson is creating an inventory of extra formula and a list of mothers who need it, prioritizing low-income mothers of color or those who are undocumented.
The nationwide formula shortage began after Abbott, one of the largest manufacturers, recalled three popular brands of powdered infant formula in February and closed its Michigan facility, CNN reported. In response to the shortage, Nestlé announced it is rushing formula to the country from the Netherlands and Switzerland.
Abbott reached an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration on May 14 to enter into a consent decree that could restart operations at its facility in a few weeks.
But Chicago moms couldn’t wait a few more weeks, organizers of the collection project said. Knott-Dawson, who has a 13-year-old and a 9-year-old, said she had trouble breastfeeding in the past and wanted to help new mothers with the same challenge get the formula they needed now.
“I wanted something simple that we could do. … It’s not perfect, but perfection is the opposite of progress,” Knott-Dawson said. “I’m trying really hard to get the ball rolling so that people with energy and resources will pick it up, because I didn’t see that happening.”
The shortage has highlighted how much breastfeeding can be a struggle for moms for a variety of reasons.
Only about 26 percent of babies born in 2018 were breastfed exclusively through six months, and about 60 percent of mothers aren’t able to breastfeed for as long as they’d like, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents of color and those who are younger are also less likely to be able to breastfeed their babies, data shows.
Katrina Pavlik, founder of Breastfeed Chicago and another project volunteer, said the mutual aid effort hits a “collective nerve” at a time when women are fighting for abortion and reproductive rights and better access to quality health care.
“[We] are tired of moms being second-class citizens in America right now,” Pavlik said. “We are left to carry the burden of reproduction.”
Pavlik hopes formula donations can alleviate a burden for moms. She said she’s heard from women willing to drive and deliver formula around the Chicagoland area — even if “it’s just one can, it’s something.”
Knott-Dawson, who lives in suburban Broadview but grew up in Chicago, likened the mutual aid effort to when communities made hundreds of masks and donated groceries during the height of the pandemic.
“We can’t wait for systems to get it right and dwindle it down. Right now, if you have [baby formula], share it,” she said.
Since getting off the ground in mid-May, the project has become a way to share resources with mothers regarding baby formula and connect them to social workers, pediatricians and other organizers in their community working to address the shortage.
“It’s not hard to stand in solidarity with moms in this moment,” said Dot Lambshead Roche, a mother of two and a project volunteer. “The more we connect [with other organizers] and see how beautiful and efficient these spaces are … small impact is still impact.”
Volunteers said they hope the effort highlights the need, inspires others to help moms however they can and mute judgments surrounding breastfeeding, who is most deserving and who has access to resources.
“Everybody’s in survival mode; everyone is just tired,” Knott-Dawson said. “So let’s just, let’s just give and not judge.”
How to help
An online form for people looking to donate formula was closed on May 27, but a range of organizations have stepped up to take formula donations.
Volunteers partnered with New Moms, which is accepting formula donations at 5317 W. Chicago Ave. Enfamil baby formula in the yellow can is a top request from mothers in the area, Lambshead Roche said.
New Moms is also accepting online donations to be used to buy formula for families in need when it’s available.
Suburban community fridges at The Hampton House, 804 S. 17th Ave. in Maywood; Oak Park’s Carnival Grocery, 824 South Oak Park Ave. in Oak Park; and Euclid Church, 405 S. Euclid Ave. in Oak Park have designated pantries accepting drop-off donations of formula.
Volunteers also plan to partner with Hustle Mommies in Englewood and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and are reaching out to local soup kitchens and food pantries that could serve as drop-off and pickup locations.
Organizers also are partnering with South Loop group National Immigrant Justice Center to promote a Target baby registry to deliver formula, diapers, wipes and other baby supplies to a mom in need in DeKalb.