‘A Parent In Poverty Can Get The Food Their Five Year Old Needs But Not The Food Their Five-Month-Old Baby Needs’

BPAS and Feed are calling for the government to clarify the law around infant formula at food banks.

Formula food banks

by Rhiannon Evans |
Updated on

BPASand Feedhave launched a campaign to ask the government to clarify the law around infant formula, so that food banks could give the costly baby feed to parents without fear.

Unicef guidelines suggesting food banks shouldn't give out formula have left the associations confused - but BPAS and Feed say both UK law and WHO guidance is clear and that they should be able to distribute it to those in need.

Reports have emerged of families watering down formula and babies going hungry because of the lack of provision by some food banks. Baby formula is expensive - and cost-fixed by law. A baby could go through two boxes, around £11 each, per week.

Some charities do ignore the Unicef guidelines, but others have said they fear they would be evicted by councils or suffer legal implications if they went against them.

The groups are therefore calling on the Government, specifically the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP, to issue urgent legal clarification to enable food and baby banks to provide formula milk to vulnerable infants who cannot safely be fed any other food. While there are many restrictions around the promotion of formula milk, they say there is absolutely nothing in law restricting food banks from providing formula milk to families and this needs urgently making clear.

A mother cannot decide to re-lactate on demand if she becomes unable to afford formula milk.

Aid organisation Unicef advises food banks not to give out powdered milk formula to financially-strapped families because of 'concerns for the safety of the baby' and urges them to instead direct parents to other agencies.

A spokesperson from BPAS said: ‘It would be perfectly safe for food and baby banks to provide infant formula. What is categorically unsafe for babies and their families is a lack of food. Families who cannot afford formula can be forced to resort to unsafe feeding practices, such as watering down formula, stretching time between feeds, and feeding their baby solid food. Babies who experience these unsafe practices can have profoundly poor short- and long-term outcomes, including allergies, anaphylaxis, and choking.’

They added: ‘It cannot be right that there are policies in place which mean that a parent in poverty seeking help would be able to get the food their five year old child needs but not the food their five month old baby needs. Over the pandemic, we have seen families plunged suddenly into real economic hardship. The majority of parents will either partially or exclusively feed their child with formula by the time they are just eight weeks old. A mother cannot decide to re-lactate on demand if she becomes unable to afford formula milk.’

Responding, Sue Ashmore, Director of the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative said: ‘In this unprecedented time, we know many families are financially struggling and turning to foodbanks for help. Whilst we recognise and admire the incredible work of foodbanks and community volunteers, unfortunately they cannot guarantee the consistent supply of infant formula that is vital for babies’ survival and health, and it should not be on their shoulders to do so. Babies are too vulnerable and the consequences too serious for families to have to rely on donations, which could be the wrong type of formula or not enough for their baby’s needs. Families who find themselves in this situation need the support of trained professionals like health visitors who can ensure access to a sustainable supply of infant formula.

'We believe it is the responsibility of local authorities and trained health specialists to meet these needs. We have produced new guidance, in partnership with First Steps Nutrition and the National Infant Feeding Network - a network of over 700 infant feeding specialists - to ensure that local authorities and public health teams take the lead in protecting and supporting babies and families in need.

'How babies are fed in the first months of life can have a profound effect on their health, so we must ensure everything possible is being done to support families and protect babies in the short and long term. We believe that it is not acceptable, necessary or safe for babies in the UK to have to rely on foodbank donations. Babies and families need a more reliable feeding solution, one which is sustainable and can be guaranteed week to week.'

If you’d like to support the BPAS campaign, you can email you MP using this link.

Tulia's story

Tulia is 31 years old. As a young woman she was trafficked into the UK and sold to a prostitution ring. By the time she managed to escape, she had contracted HIV. Through the NHS, Tulia was able to access HIV treatment and since her diagnosis four years ago she has been able to bring her viral load down to a level where it is so low that it can no longer be detected in tests. This is called an 'undetectable viral load', and it means that the chances of passing on the virus are effectively zero. However, for anyone to maintain this status they must adhere to a careful anti-retroviral medication regime.

Tulia's life since her escape from sexual exploitation has been full of complexities and challenges. She is seeking asylum in the UK, and until this is granted she must rely on limited support from the Home Office, which includes basic accommodation in a shared hostel. Because the hostel she was living in provided food, she was not entitled to the asylum seeker allowance of £37.75 per week. Tulia's partner was helping her to manage financially, but earlier this year he was deported leaving her with no support at all. A few weeks after he was deported, Tulia gave birth to their baby.

Thanks to her incredible NHS care, Tulia's baby was born HIV negative. But temporarily housed by social services, Tulia now has a baby to care for and no one to turn to for support. Although food is again provided by the hostel, she doesn't feel safe taking the baby to the busy shared dining room, during this time of COVID.

It was at this stage Tulia was referred to The Food Chain, a small London based HIV charity that supports people in crisis to access food that can help them get well and stay healthy. In addition to providing Tulia with nutritional support, one of the first things we did was send her formula milk for her baby. This is because current guidance from health experts such as the British HIV Association (BHIVA) states that UK mothers who are HIV positive should use formula milk rather than breastfeeding. Breast feeding is an identified transmission route for HIV, and even though the risk is small it is also cumulative; the longer a HIV positive mother breastfeeds, the greater the risk of transmission.

Tulia knows this. Tulia knows that she needs to acquire formula milk to avoid any risk of transmitting HIV to her baby. But Tulia doesn't have any money. Even if she were to receive the government allowance for asylum seekers, £37.75 per week (plus the £5 extra they'll give to new mothers), this would have to cover all food, clothing, transport and other expenses for her and her baby, including formula milk. But she doesn't have access to that allowance - she doesn't have access to any money at all. Tulia is therefore faced with a question. It's a question we see being faced by mother after mother when they are referred to The Food Chain, and it's a question that no mother should have to ask: 'How do I feed my baby?'

Formula milk is not available nationwide on the NHS. In some areas, local authorities and trusts make provisions for this, but coverage is not universal. In the HIV community, The Food Chain and other organisations step in to address that need, but it is being addressed with charity money in a time where charity money is thinly spread across an overwhelmed sector. Moral, ethical and human arguments aside, this is a public health issue. If London and other UK cities are truly committed to the Fast Track Cities goal of no new HIV diagnoses by 2030, then surely a universal provision of formula milk for HIV positive mothers should be part of this promise.

To support the BPAS and Feed campaign for urgent government clarification, go here.

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