Parents being priced out of baby formula turn to food banks who are unable to provide

Foodbanks are calling for a change in guidelines that are preventing them from giving out baby formula milk to desperate parents. Rocketing inflation is pushing up the price of formula and some are even resorting to stealing it to feed their babies.

Food and babybanks want to help and say they are often the first place parents turn to, but currently advice from aid organisation Unicef says formula shouldn't be given out because of safety concerns, ITV News Correspondent Rupert Evelyn reports

Parents unable to afford baby formula are being left in a "dangerous" situation as a result of rules that don't allow food banks to dispense it.

ITV News has spoken to one mother who said the cost of her baby's formula had "gone up by a pound, to £12.50". She's now had to reach out for help, but it's not easy.

Food banks are not allowed to give out baby formula.

"We're not allowed to hand baby milk out, which is very frustrating for us because we've got so many mothers that are struggling," Monique Collins from Disc food bank in Newquay told ITV News.

"Mums are actually watering it down which is obviously not a good thing because babies are then not getting the nutritional values they need. It's dangerous what's happening here".

Baby formula now has extra security measures on the shelves in shops. Credit: ITV News

On the one day we filmed at the food bank, four mothers had visited asking for help feeding their babies.

It means food banks are, instead, finding a way around the rules - donating nappies and wet wipes to reduce overall costs, or even handing out the money for mothers to go and buy the formula themselves.

Midwives told ITV News about their concerns too.

Speaking anonymously due to concerns about losing her job, one midwife told us it is "dangerous" for babies to be underfed.

"Initially for a newborn they can suffer from dehydration, weight loss and jaundice and, ultimately, a drop in blood sugar levels that can cause irreversible brain damage," she said.

Why are food banks not allowed to give out baby formula?

Guidelines issued by Unicef in November 2020, and backed by the UK government, leave food banks reluctant to hand out formula.

Unicef warns that "while on the surface" food banks "seem like a practical solution," handing out formula "can be a risky practice that can inadvertently cause harm".

The children's charity warns that food bank staff and volunteers cannot support families "to feed their babies as safely as possible" in the same way trained professionals like health visitors and midwives can do.

They "cannot be expected to assess, plan and put into place the strategies needed to ensure that the short- and long-term needs of babies are met in what can often be complex situations," the charity says.

Unicef also points to food banks being unable to "guarantee timely or consistent supplies of infant formula."

The charity, instead, recommends that local authorities are responsible for the distribution of infant formula as a part of emergency food provision systems.

The guidance has led to calls from experts in the area to clarify the guidance, so it recognises the situation desperate parents are in.

A survey of food bank users, staff and volunteers as well as health and social care professionals found the guidance doesn't work.

The vast majority of responders (99.3%) said food and baby banks are essential for supporting families living in food poverty, while 91.3% stated they have a vital role to play in the provision of formula.

One mother told ITV News about how the cost of baby formula had got too expensive for her. Credit: PA

"The research showed us that health visitors and other professionals that support families in need recognise [...] that the guidance not to provide formula directly to families in need are restricting them professionally," Dr Erin Williams from Feed, the charity behind the survey, said.

"So clarity on the law that is OK to provide formula to formula-fed babies that are hungry and that need it is very much what's needed now."

In a statement, a government spokesperson told ITV News: "Food banks are independent organisations and it’s up to individual providers which donations they make available.

"We have published legislation to restrict formula being given out free to families, except in emergency situations, given there’s a variety of different products on the market which may not be appropriate for certain babies – for example, due to their age.

"Our Healthy Start scheme is available to low-income families, with payments that can be used to purchase milk or baby formula suitable from birth."

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A spokesperson for the UK Committee for Unicef said: "Families in crisis must be able to access an affordable, sustainable and guaranteed weekly supply of infant formula – but this must not rest on the shoulders of food bank staff and volunteers. 

"Food bank staff and volunteers make a vital contribution but cannot guarantee a timely or consistent supply of infant formula as they rely on donations which may not be suitable.

"Instead, Local Authorities should have care systems in place to provide immediate support for struggling families and to ensure health professionals are on hand to help.

"Babies are extremely vulnerable in their first few months and it’s critical that staff at food banks know how and where to urgently refer parents and carers, so they get help quickly. 

"We know times are really tough for many new parents and passionately believe they should be able to swiftly access the care and support they need for themselves and their babies, when they need it.

"Local authorities must urgently review their care pathways to ensure all families in need are receiving the support they require."

If you or somebody you know has been affected by the issues raised in this report, there is help available.

  • The National Infant Feeding Network (NIFN) is a network of 700 NHS infant feedingspecialists who work to share evidence-based practice around infant feeding andvery early childhood development in order to deliver optimum health and wellbeingoutcomes for mothers and babies.

  • Feed is an independent charity aimed at supporting parents with compassionate science based infant feeding information.

  • The Trussell Trust provides support a nationwide network of food banks and provide emergency food and support to people locked in poverty. They have a map to help find your nearest food bank on their website.