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COVID-19: Families Across the U.S. Struggle to Afford Diapers, Wipes and Formula

Over 56 million families have lost income since March 13, and diaper banks are straining to fill the need.

July 29, 2020 A few months ago, Chelsea Murgatroyd turned to her local diaper bank for a supply of diapers and wipes. Murgatroyd, 29, who has a 4-year-old and 8-month-old in Austin, Texas, co-owned a carpet cleaning business with her husband that opened two years ago. They worked mostly with hotels, but as soon as the coronavirus shutdown happened in March, “all our work was gone,” she said, and ultimately they had to shutter the business. Their savings went quickly. Murgatroyd found the Austin Diaper Bank through a Google search. “We needed help,” she said. “I have never used a charity in my life. That was very different and humbling for me.”

Many families across the country are turning to diaper banks to meet basic needs because of pandemic-related job losses. Over 56 million people with children under 18 at home say they, or their household, has lost income since March 13, 2020, according to the most recent Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re at about a 300 percent increase to where we were last year in terms of families that need diapers, wipes and period supplies,” said Holly McDaniel, the executive director of the Austin Diaper Bank.

Troy Moore, the chief of external affairs for the National Diaper Bank Network, said that across the United States, their locations are “distributing on average, 50 percent more diapers monthly to families in need than before Covid-19.”

Not being able to provide basics for your children can have “a cascading effect,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, the chief policy officer for Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on the well-being of infants and toddlers. Jones-Taylor is part of a national group that has been tracking emotional well-being during the virus through a weekly survey by the University of Oregon.

Since April 6, researchers have surveyed 2,400 caregivers across the socioeconomic spectrum, and, according to Jones-Taylor, they have found that when “caregivers report financial and material hardship, within a week it leads to caregiver emotional distress,” which can include sleeplessness and anxiety. By the following week, “caregiver emotional distress is linked to child emotional distress.”

In the early days of the pandemic, I wrote about how panic-buying left many grocery stores and online retailers out of formula, diapers and wipes. Since then, the supply chains have stabilized for those products and many others, said Karthik Natarajan, an assistant professor of supply chain and operations at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, though parents may still have issues finding less popular or specialty products. Anecdotally, parents across the country have told me about issues finding preemie diapers, sensitive wipes and their preferred brands in local stores.

Panic-buying in March and April was particularly damaging for parents who are part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, because the checks they receive only cover specific products in specific amounts. In late March, I talked to Catie Weimer, 33, a WIC participant in Ogden, Utah, who couldn’t find Alimentum, a hypoallergenic formula, in the quantities her WIC check would allow her to purchase. When I checked in with Weimer last week, she said that supplies seem to be back to normal at grocery stores in her area. She also said that WIC had restructured their checks in a way that made buying the formula easier. Previously, her WIC checks (which she collects every three months) were for two sets of four cans each, so if she could only find two cans at one store, she could not get reimbursed and find the other two cans elsewhere. When Weimer got her new checks in June, they were split into three checks, two of which were for two cans, the third was for three cans. “If there’s a shortage, you can find two cans more easily,” she said.

She also has additional backup formula now, because after the article was published, many readers tracked her down and sent her supplies. “I have donated so much to our local mutual aid,” Weimer said.

However, not all supply chain issues have been resolved. The increased need for diapers, wipes and formula is now shifting from stores to diaper banks and other charities. “The people who used to go and probably buy these at a store are now seeking more at food banks and other donation channels. That imbalance, that shift in demand, that could have a huge ripple effect in terms of whether the customer can get products or not,” Natarajan said.

Samantha London, 32, who has a 7-year-old, 5-year-old and 4-month-old and lives in Brooklyn, said that she’s had issues with both finding her preferred baby products and affording them. Her daughter spent time in the NICU because she was only three pounds at birth, and her family could not find preemie diapers at stores nearby. When they tried to find them online, companies were selling them at exorbitant prices they could not afford. London is not working right now, as she’s taking care of her baby and her children who are out of school; her husband’s job in construction has slowed down considerably, making their financial circumstances precarious.

London posted on NextDoor, a social network that connects people by neighborhood, about her challenge to find diapers in the size her daughter needed, and a few of her neighbors gave her their extra supplies. She ended up investing in cloth diapers, and her father-in-law drove all the way from New York to Delaware to find the kind of sensitive wipes her baby needed, for a fair price.

McDaniel of Austin Diaper Bank said she does not see things getting better any time soon. Her organization is moving as quickly as it can, but it is already struggling to meet the demand while keeping their staff and volunteers safe from the virus. “This is going to be long-term chaos,” she said.


To find out more about donating diapers, visit the National Diaper Bank Network site. Dani Blum contributed reporting.

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