Baby Formula Isn't Available In Most Food Banks – Is It Time This Changed?

“Why are we not trusting parents in poverty to be able to access formula safely for their children?"
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Parents pushed to the brink of poverty are unable to access formula for their babies at most UK food banks.

One of the biggest food bank chains in the country has told HuffPost UK they will not stock formula because they follow guidance from Unicef, which suggests giving out formula in these settings “can inadvertently cause harm”.

The main argument is that parents of young babies could be given follow-on milk, which is not suitable for little ones under six months old, and that families need proper feeding support via local authorities rather than food banks.

But infant feeding charity Feed UK and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) believe that not providing formula to struggling parents is causing the real harm, because the routes to accessing formula through local authorities can be long-winded.

The impact of this debate? Babies are going without crucial sustenance in the interim.

Both Feed UK and BPAS warn that mums are resorting to watering down infant formula or feeding their babies porridge or cow’s milk to stop them from going hungry.

Everyone ultimately wants what’s best for the nation’s babies – but with a cost of living crisis pushing more people into poverty, and tubs of first infant formula costing from a tenner up to £18, isn’t it time we found a compromise?

Why don’t food banks give out baby formula?

There are a few reasons for this. The main one, according to an online infosheet from Unicef, is because young babies could accidentally be given the wrong kind of formula by volunteers and staff.

But Katherine O’Brien, a spokesperson for BPAS, argues that if parents are trusted to choose the right formula from supermarket shelves, surely they should be trusted to do so in food banks?

“In supermarkets, if you have the financial means, you can go and pick up a tub of formula off the shelf – you are trusted to know how to use it and which milk is right for you,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“Why are we not trusting parents in poverty to be able to access formula safely for their children?”

- Katherine O'Brien, BPAS

“You wouldn’t have somebody at the checkout talking to you about which formula you’ve chosen,” she continues. “Why are we not trusting parents in poverty to be able to access formula safely for their children?

“This isn’t a medical intervention. This is the food that the majority of babies need in the first six months of their lifetime. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Unicef acknowledges in its guidance that “this is a very difficult issue with few easy solutions”, and advises that food banks should put struggling families in touch with their local authorities to get feeding support through schemes like Healthy Start (England) and Best Start Foods (Scotland), where parents are sent a card with money on it so they can buy food and milk (including formula) from some UK shops.

The charity stresses food bank staff and volunteers can’t be expected to assess, plan and put into place the strategies needed to ensure the needs of babies are met in what can often be complex situations.

“There is a harm caused by not providing formula – and it’s only going to increase.”

- Katherine O'Brien, BPAS

Schemes like Healthy Start are “fantastic”, according to Erin Williams, one of the co-founders of Feed UK – but they are not instant enough.

“These processes can’t help everybody and families are falling through the net,” she says. “If my three-week-old baby has to wait until Saturday for his next bottle, that’s a serious issue.”

A lot of families visiting food banks need help that day. If they can’t access it straight away, they have to resort to alternatives that could be harmful, too.

“There is a harm caused by not providing formula – and it’s only going to increase,” says O’Brien. “The cost of formula has gone up significantly along with everything else, more families are being plunged into poverty.”

More than one in five people in the UK (22%) are in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Of these, 8.1 million are working-age adults, 4.3 million are children and 2.1 million are pensioners.

“It’s obvious that there’s going to be an increase in demand for formula – and it’s clear that lots of families aren’t going to be able to afford it,” O’Brien adds.

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One of the suggestions in Unicef’s guidance that speaks to the immediacy of needing formula milk is that in some cases, a food bank could offer an emergency payment to the family so they could buy their baby’s usual formula.

But the ability to actually do this will vary between food banks, as handling cash on the premises is yet another hurdle that volunteers have to navigate.

Local authorities are also too slow off the mark, says Williams, who’s been campaigning to change provision of formula in food banks for four years.

“We were hearing from baby banks, food banks and families that they were really struggling to get access to formula,” she explains, “and when we reviewed all the local authorities in Scotland [in 2020], we found that some of them didn’t even have an emergency formula provision pathway and, of those that did, over 60% were referring families to food banks.”

Is it illegal for food banks to offer baby formula?

It’s not illegal for food banks to give out baby formula to struggling families, but lots don’t because they adhere to Unicef’s guidelines.

A spokesperson for The Trussell Trust, one of the main providers of food banks in the UK, tells HuffPost UK: “As we are not health professionals, we feel it is important for our guidance to mirror the standards set by Unicef which are used in many NHS settings across the UK.”

FareShare, a major provider of food to charities in the UK, also does not provide infant formula because it says it has to follow the same food safety regulations as the food industry.

A spokesperson tells HuffPost UK: “It is against UK regulations for infant formula to be given out free. As such, FareShare cannot be given, nor can we redistribute, infant formula.”

HuffPost UK understands legislation restricts formula being given out free to families, except in emergency situations, and only then can it be given to infants who fit certain criteria. This means it can only be given to babies who have to be fed on infant formula and only for as long as required.

What needs to happen now?

Almost one in three children (31%) are living in poverty in the UK – and child poverty continues to rise. Baby banks are predicting this will be their busiest winter yet. The picture is a desperate one for many families.

One solution to provide formula more safely, as per Feed UK’s guidance, could be for food banks to only offer first infant milk, or stage 1 infant formula, which usually has a large number 1 on the box or tin and is suitable for babies up to one year of age. That way, there won’t be an issue with babies being given potentially harmful follow-on milk.

Feed UK has also suggested the government should release a public statement that says, in accordance with UK law, food and baby banks can receive and provide first infant formula for formula-fed babies to clear up any confusion.

But a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson (DHSC) tells HuffPost UK: “Food banks are independent charitable organisations and the government has no role in their operation.

“Decisions about which donations to accept and make available to food bank users are a matter for food bank providers.”

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O’Brien, from BPAS, suggests now is the time for food banks to take action and simply amend their policies.

“Personally, as somebody that does volunteer with a food bank, I can tell you that we get so many donations of infant formula and it’s absolutely heartbreaking that we’re not able to give out these donations, because formula is incredibly expensive,” she says.

“I appreciate the guidance was written a number of years ago. We need to look at the situation families are in today – and the desperation that so many people are going to face this winter.

“I think it needs to be looked at again in the context of that. There is no reason why food banks shouldn’t be able to provide formula.”

What did Unicef say?

HuffPost UK asked Unicef if it would consider amending its guidelines, given the cost of living crisis and more families struggling. It said it removed its online infosheet on Monday (October 24) and has instead released new guidance aimed at local authorities.

A spokesperson for Unicef UK says: “Times are really tough for many new parents. Unicef UK strongly believes that families struggling to make ends meet and for whom breastfeeding is not an option or choose not to breastfeed must be able to access an affordable supply of infant formula whose quality and consistent availability is assured.

“Struggling parents and babies must also have access to healthcare professionals who can help them.”

The charity’s spokesperson says local authorities and health visiting teams can best provide this because they can co-ordinate resources with local community partners to ensure an ongoing, consistent supply alongside wrap-around care to families that need it.

“Coordination between local authorities and food banks is vital,” they add. “Food banks should not be filling temporary gaps in care that should be provided in a more consistent, safe and sustainable way.”

This much – at least – everyone agrees on.

“Struggling parents and babies must also have access to healthcare professionals who can help them.”

- Unicef

Williams now hopes that more food banks will offer first infant formula so families can have urgent access to it if they need it – in addition to referring those in need for support.

There’s also a need for a joined up local authority emergency formula access pathway so all parents, wherever they live, can access crucial help this winter, she adds.

Larger food banks should now meet with those food banks and baby banks who are already providing infant formula safely, suggests O’Brien.

“They need to look again at their policies,” she says. “This can’t wait. They need to take action for this winter.”

This article has been updated to correct the date in which Unicef removed its online infosheet.