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Empty shelves in the infant formula section of a Walmart.

B.C. parents face 20-per-cent increase in baby-formula prices

Mothers and food banks across B.C. struggle to keep up with rising infant-formula prices and limited supply

By Brianna Reeve , in City , on March 10, 2023

When Ally Lutes’s son was born a year ago, she could not produce enough breast milk and had to supplement it with baby formula. 

Since then, Lutes, who lives with her family in Kimberly, B.C., has been stuck in the same situation as many other B.C. parents, contending with a scarce supply of baby formula that is continuously increasing in price. 

“You’re basically adding $200 to $300 to your grocery bill every month, probably more, to feed your child with formula,” said Lutes. 

A father is shopping for baby formula in a Walmart with low stock.

A recent Statistics Canada report reveals that baby-formula prices increased nearly 21 per cent during 2022, while average grocery prices saw an increase of 11 per cent. At the beginning of the year, baby formula cost $29.29 per 900 grams and, by December, it reached $36.06, the highest price seen in years.

“My cost can really easily double in a month. There’s no stability,” said Rebecca Ho, a mom in Burnaby, B.C. who has been struggling to find a generic brand of baby formula.

The price increases are the result of a vital formula manufacturing plant in the United States closing for several months, leading to a Canada-wide shortage and limited low-cost options.

“The likelihood of me actually picking up formula in one trip is probably about 25 per cent. I hit three stores basically but only get maybe one every one of four times,” she said.

Food banks are facing challenges too. The Surrey Food Bank shelves used to be stocked with Good Start, a popular brand of baby formula, but now they are struggling to keep up with the demand.

“We’ve seen a downtrend with formula donations because the prices of those have gone up, so we don’t see many donations with that anymore now,” said Vijay Naidu, head of communications at the food bank.

The food bank relies on a mix of donations and buying to support its Tiny Bundles program, which provides infant-specific supplies to over 150 families weekly.

Naidu emphasized the difficulty of keeping up with the need for formula, even when the food bank receives large donations from food drives.

“It still wasn’t enough because within a span of one to two weeks it’s all gone. That’s the issue that we’re facing,” he said.

Some extra security measures are implemented on baby formula in a Shoppers Drug Mart, including keeping the formula in individual plastic cases and using spider wrap security tags.

Tiny Bundles has seen an increased amount of parent requests for some of the most expensive types of formula, such as ones for sensitive stomachs and hypoallergenic ones.

Switching between different types of formulas can also pose another problem for parents.

“Once a newborn or the baby likes the taste of that particular formula, they need that particular formula and, if they try to use another type of formula, the baby won’t have that,” said Naidu.

The additional need for food bank support is not just being noticed by people directly involved in the distribution process.

“I think families everywhere are hurting. In my community, more and more families are accessing the food bank than ever before,” said Lutes.

As food and formula prices increased, the government of Canada recommended that parents try alternative routes such as breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding isn’t an option for all parents, though. Only 36 per cent of women in Canada exclusively breastfeed for six months.

Lutes, who faced issues with milk supply and medical trauma that pushed her into using formula from birth, does not agree with the recommendations.

“I feel like it’s really hurtful to moms who are already struggling. I can’t feed my baby, I can’t find the things I need to feed my baby and then to be told, Oh, you just need to breastfeed more.’ It’s very dismissive and harmful,” she said.

Ho experienced similar struggles with breastfeeding, being able to triple-feed with a mix of breastfeeding, formula and pumping for six months.

“If formula was readily available, easily available, I probably would have switched to formula a lot better. It would have been a lot better for my mental health,” she said

Prices aren’t likely to go down soon. The government of Canada has stated that full production rates are not expected to return until 2023, leaving little reason for prices to decrease.

“You don’t have any other options. It’s like not having food available for adults, like going to the grocery store and there’s no food available,” said Lutes.