A little over a month ago, my husband made a trip to our local Walmart for some basic home and grocery needs. This was at the very beginning of this COVID-19 pandemic, a time when people were starting to hoard household supplies and food as if these items had suddenly become a rarity in our world overnight. But how much of a problem it had truly become, well… that was something I had yet to see the full extent of.
Instead of my husband coming back with the ordinary items we would normally purchase, nearly everything he brought home was an alternative to something we would typically purchase. Or, it wasn’t available at all. Not long after we started to unload these things, he paused to tell me, “They were almost completely out of diapers, so I had to get this brand and size instead. I hope this works.”
I knew that finding toilet paper was like trying to find a needle in the haystack at this time, but diapers too? Really?!
As I learned rather quickly, not just from my husband’s one trip to Walmart, but from several other mothers posting their baby’s needs on social media: Yes. Really.
It’s not just a matter of “where do I find these freaking diapers?” Not everyone has the economic means to hoard diapers or other supplies, which means they may end up simply going without. As this mom depicted in this video from the Muslim’s Women’s Council says, “How am I supposed to diaper my child if I can’t afford to buy twenty at a time like you can?”
Hoarding isn’t just an annoyance; it’s potentially devastating for low-income families everywhere.
And the thing is, it’s not just the diaper-hoarding that has become a major issue for parents — it’s nearly everything that’s a necessity when caring for toddlers and babies. It’s wipes, formula, baby food, as well as the over-the-counter infant medicines that were once neatly lined up and fully stocked on the shelves.
According to experts, however, this isn’t a supply and demand issue we’re seeing here; actually, supply chains have become very smart about producing and distributing needed items with varying fluctuations of demand. This is a panic-buying issue.
“Especially with diapers and baby formulas, it’s pretty similar to what you’re seeing with toilet papers and hand sanitizers and stuff like that,” Karthik Natarajan, assistant professor of Supply Chain and Operations at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, tells The New York Times.
As Natarajan speculates, particularly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans didn’t know how long this was going to last or how severe the virus would become. To err on the side of caution, families began purchasing their most essential needs in a large enough quantity that would last them a few weeks, or even months at a time, leaving nothing left in stock for those who didn’t panic-buy.
This is problematic. And as we’re seeing, it’s the youngest among us who could suffer — and already are — as a direct result.
Even if parents wanted to obtain a stockpile of supplies, such as diapers, wipes, or formula, it’s unlikely that they’d be able to find an ample-enough stock to do so now. But for some, it’s not even about the urge to hoard enough of their favorite brands to meet their infant’s needs for a few months — it’s about the scarce pickings of what’s left over, and the cost of what is currently available.
Many infants have sensitive skin, allergies, or intolerances, which ultimately affects what brands their parents can and cannot buy. So even if the cost isn’t a problem for one family, the availability of what remains can be. If people are hoarding the only brand of formula a baby can use, this is going to send parents into a fight-or-flight mode. Which could, ultimately, lead to a higher percentage of those partaking in panic-buying.
Those who are financially struggling to provide the essentials for their child may be one of some six million people who relies on programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), a federal program which provides nutrition for low-income mothers and children, to help see them through. Similar to food stamps, WIC provides recipients with a check or credit card so mothers and their children may receive certain food items at the store. But unlike food stamps, WIC benefits are brand- and quantity-specific.
If recipients of WIC cannot find the exact brand or quantity of their child’s formula, baby food, milk, cheese, etc., they don’t have the luxury of substituting for something different like those who are paying with cash or SNAP benefits. Plainly put, if they were in a pinch and found themselves unable to afford these things on their own that day, they would be out of luck.
For some states, WIC benefits are reloaded at the beginning of the month, but recipients are able to access their benefits at any time within four weeks. Still, if your family is able to avoid grocery shopping for things like formula, milk, or baby food (particularly if you see a small “WIC” sticker placed below these items on the shelf), please give these lower-income families time to obtain these necessities first.
WIC recipients aren’t typically the ones adding to the panic-buying problem, as their benefits only provide them with what they actually need for one month at a time. Remember, they aren’t the issue here, and they will leave enough formula and baby food for you and the next person who comes along.
Because that’s the thing: There is enough. Our country has plenty of formula, diapers, wipes, and over-the-counter infant medications for everyone to get what they need. The problem isn’t with the supply chain. The problem lies solely with those who are panicking and hoarding these necessities without regard for anyone else.