US-Canada research team seeks to unravel the mystery behind infant formula shortage

child with bottle

URBANA, Ill. – The infant formula shortage crisis in the United States and Canada, which began in February 2022, revealed vulnerabilities in the industrial food system and disproportionately affected low-income families and those relying on specialty formulas.

A team of researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and two universities in Nova Scotia, Canada, have received a 237,238 CAD (approximately 172,482 USD) grant from the Canadian  Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to explore the shortage's root causes and its effects on North American families.

Like so many social issues, infant food insecurity is a complex problem that crosscuts any one area, sector, or national setting. This research collaboration works to build linkages to better understand the causes and consequences of infant formula shortages and help protect families into the future,” said Merin Oleschuk, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at U. of I.

Oleschuk is a collaborator on the grant, which also includes Elizabeth Rondinelli, assistant professor of sociology at Saint Mary’s University, and principal investigator Lesley Frank, Canada Research Chair in Food, Health, and Social Justice at Acadia University. Preliminary results from Frank's earlier research highlight significant challenges faced by families even before the 2022 formula shortage.

"Food insecurity during infancy is a pressing nutrition and social equity issue that demands attention,” Frank explained. “Our ultimate goal is to develop robust economic and food supply protections for families, ensuring children and their families' rights to food are upheld."

The interdisciplinary team plans to study the impact of the crisis using digital ethnography, surveys, interviews, and cross-national comparative research. The main objective is to create emergency feeding pathways and long-term solutions for infant food security.

The project employs a social-relations approach, linking individual experiences with institutional relations to better understand the connections between individual situations and wider social structures influencing food access and consumption.

“Food insecurity is felt at the heart of family life – being able to feed our children can be a source of great pride, but when food is scarce, it can also be a source of great stress. Our project is designed to bring the stories associated with infant food insecurity to the forefront of discussions of what steps must be taken to meaningfully address this ongoing crisis,” Rondinelli said.

The SSHRC grant will facilitate knowledge-sharing and positively impact Canadian and American academic communities, and produce evidence for policy interventions, the researchers said. Regular updates on progress and findings will be shared through videos, a website, academic publications, and conferences.

The project is conducted as a collaboration between the Food Equity and Dignity (FED) Lab at the U. of. I. and the Fed Family Lab at Acadia University; each lab studies household food practices through multiple research methods and across disciplines, aiming to inform academic, community, and policy efforts to support food equity and strengthen the well-being of families.






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