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‘Motherhood mobilization’: Mass. woman starts Free Formula Exchange

“I can't imagine being that same mother of a premature baby trying to find that formula now during a national shortage.”

A woman shops for baby formula at Target in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 16, as a nationwide shortage of baby formula continues due to supply chain crunches and a major product recall in February. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Though she isn’t a formula manufacturer and she can’t single handedly fix supply chain issues affecting baby formula, this Swampscott mom is still giving it her all to try to help families find food for their babies.

Friday night after work, Keiko Zoll, a communications professional, started Free Formula Exchange, a mutual aid network aimed at connecting people who need formula with people who have formula to donate. 

In just three days, her site has received over 500 requests for formula, and 70 people volunteering to donate formulas from all across the country, Zoll told Boston.com Monday morning. 

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“I would love for this site to not have to exist in the first place. If it does, I hope it’s only for a very short amount of time, but I’m not entirely optimistic,” Zoll said. 

Nationwide, the out of stock percentage hit 43% for the week ending May 8, according to retail software company Datasembly. The shortage, driven in part by supply chain issues tied to the pandemic, a recall of formula, and the shutdown of an Abbott Nutrition factory, has been worsening since January. 

Now, stories of families buying formula online for high prices and rationing food for their children are becoming more commonplace. 

“I had one of those NPR driveway moments — I was listening to a podcast that was explaining the baby formula shortage crisis and I was very overcome with emotion, hearing stories from mothers who are just trying to feed their babies,” Zoll said. 

Hearing stories of families searching on eBay and paying high prices for just a few cans of formula made her angry and motivated her to try to make a difference, Zoll said. 

The Formula Shortage:

She said she also empathized with the stories she heard on NPR and has read online because her son, who is now 9 years old, relied on formula for a while when he was a baby. 

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“I remember how difficult it was to try and get this formula nine years ago,” Zoll said. “I can’t imagine being that same mother of a premature baby trying to find that formula now during a national shortage.”

Free Formula Exchange functions as a way to connect people in need of formula and people with excess formula — Zoll has no hand in delivering formula. People looking to donate or receive simply fill out a form with basic information and then are taken to a platform that has a list of everyone on the opposite side of the exchange. 

There are spots to note what kind of formula, what languages you speak, where you are and a variety of other factors that can narrow down who should pair up to make an exchange happen. 

“This site was only created three days ago, and already I’m coming up against my usage limits on this form that people have to fill out,” Zoll said. “The demand is clearly there. The need is there.”

Zoll said she hopes the site won’t exist in a month, because that will mean the shortage is over and families are not struggling to the same degree they are right now. But because solving that problem is a long and complicated process, she hopes to make any difference she can in the meantime. 

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“The short-term goal right now is simply mobilize, mobilize, mobilize,” Zoll said. “It’s direct action, it is getting formula in the hands of families that need it right now — that’s the most important thing.”

The website isn’t a paid service and Zoll isn’t creating a space for people to sell formula; rather she is focusing on mutual aid and how people can “simply help [their] fellow human beings.”

“I’m not a formula manufacturer, I can’t make formula appear … But I know how to build a website and I know how to do marketing and I know how to spread the word, and I know how to organize and mobilize and activate,” Zoll said. “I felt so compelled to do something, because that’s what moms do. We see a problem, we help out. This is very much a moment of motherhood mobilization and really showing up for each other.”

Zoll is a working mom and is looking for volunteers to help make Free Formula Exchange the best it can be and help the most people it can. 

“Feeding our babies is a human right,” Zoll said.

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