This is not an issue of baby formula theft but of racial capitalism, the neglect of Black humanity, and the continued policing of BIPOC communities.
By Brittini Palmer
For some time now, I’ve wondered why baby formula is locked up behind counters and plexiglass in grocery stores. This wonder gradually led to annoyance and then further speculation. Articles that surround this topic point to theft and the powdered formula being used for the dilution of heroin and methamphetamine. There is also the devastating reality that legislation has been introduced to make stealing baby formula subject to federal racketeering laws.
In 2009, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit began to target the theft of formula. A noble gesture from a government agency which has thrown children in cages, failed to provide coronavirus protections, and was aware of unethical mass hysterectomies performed on who I understand to be God’s children. Our government has decided to tackle suspicious missing cans of baby formula, but not the issues of maternity leave, unemployment, incarceration, or actual access to food.
The baby formula industry is a billion dollar business poised to reach over $55.7 billion by the year 2025, and this financial growth is being accumulated on the backs of Black parents and poor people. Black parents use formula much more than white parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black infants are 15% less to have ever been breastfed than white infants.
This is not an issue of baby formula theft but of racial capitalism, the neglect of Black humanity, and the continued policing of BIPOC communities. The plexiglass represents the protection of the baby formula companies and their CEOs. There is nothing “pro-life” or just about this. The glass cannot represent any protection or harm reduction strategies for those in need of assistance or justice. The goal is to control, manipulate, and gain wealth.
Listen, any item in a grocery store that requires manufactured safeguarding points to a problem. If items are not accessible or affordable, this is a problem—an ethical and theological one.
The problem is that people have to steal baby formula in the first place. One cannot simply address the theft and not the conditions that create the need for it. Food, for many disenfranchised communities, has always been hard to access. This economic exploitation is nothing new; slaves would work day and night and still not have enough food for their families. The conditions that poor people live under continually drive companies’ profits and many other oppressive systems in the world.
I work with a Black mother from Georgia who stole baby formula for her infant son and was arrested. The criminalization of this mother forces her to work jobs that pay only $8.00/hr, so she still cannot adequately feed her son. Those who uphold this unjust system disproportionately punish Black people for the theft of an item that helps to meet basic needs, while they continue to benefit from the fact that white people simply stole land because they wanted it and proceeded to murder indigenous, poor, and Black people with no repercussions, for centuries.
In Black Womanist Ethics, Katie Cannon reminds us, “The structure of the capitalist political economy in which Black people are commodities combined with patriarchal contempt for women has caused Black women to experience oppression that knows no ethical or physical bounds.”
Capitalism is a global system, and the baby formula business is no exception. This industry preys on vulnerable mothers from America to Peru, and then puts them in positions of desperation when they cannot afford it. In Australia, dairy and milk powdering plants are being built solely for baby formula.
The healthcare industry is also involved in the baby formula industrial complex. Abbot Laboratories, one of the leading companies producing baby formula, helps design at least 200 maternity departments a year in the US alone, granting them access to various facilities and a place to market their product. This is intentional overt targeting of certain populations of people. Their premeditated self serving plan is to take—to sell their product, not care for the actual lives of those they target.
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My sister is a 36 year old Black mother who lives in New Jersey. She gave birth to my nephew a year ago. He spent many nights in the hospital and was only given a certain type of baby formula. While my sister had WIC, this specific baby formula was not approved to be purchased. She was forced to pay or choose another formula causing my nephew to be vulnerable to additional health conditions.
If Annie Mae Fultz was alive and able to speak, she too could tell you about the greed of baby formula companies and the exploitation of her Black children. Annie, who was deaf and mute, gave birth to the first identical quad babies in the United States. Her family was exploited by their white doctor and baby formula company PET. This company economically benefited from ad campaigns using the images of the Fultz quadruplets, yet they died with health conditions and little-to-no money.
Capitalism has never loved poor people, especially Black women. Capitalist exploiters take from communities and do nothing for them. In the words of Kwame Ture, capitalism is a very vicious system that embroiders its viciousness with all sorts of illusive terms. I believe God is not pleased.
Limited stimulus checks, locked up baby formula, and billionaires becoming wealthier. For that, all those involved be damned. We deserve better.
Rev. Brittini L. Palmer is a freedom writer, minister, activist, and graduate of Virginia Union University and McAfee School of Theology (Atlanta GA). Palmer currently works with women and children experiencing homelessness and poverty in the metro Atlanta area, and is the Communications Coordinator for RISE Together Mentorship Network.
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