I was standing in the queue for the self-checkouts, and the woman behind me was pushing a double pram, with the cutest set of twins. They looked to be about six months old; a boy and a girl. I had been eyeing them the whole time, because I’d do anything to have twin babies. (If they’d been mine, I’d call them Brenda and Brandon, just FYI.)
Sitting on the hood of the pram was a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, and two tins of baby formula.
Suddenly, the mother grabbed the tins and shoved them in my direction with a $50, and said, “Can you buy these for me?”
She was looking at a store manager coming her way from the main counter. I knew immediately what the issue was.
Despite her Aussiest of Aussie accents, she was still Asian in appearance, and she was buying more than one tin of formula. That was enough to attract attention.
Why? Because of the current baby formula shortage crisis that’s gripping Australia and China.
This week, Cindy Emma from Brisbane posted a video to the Coles Facebook page of women grabbing baby formula from shelves. She wrote, “Thos (sic) is what happens every morning at Toowong Coles QLD, same people every day literally running into the store fighting each other grabbing as much baby formula as they possibly can leaving the entire shelf empty laughing at me thinking it's funny when I questioned them about it.”
Australian baby formula is a highly-desired product in China, due to its exceptional quality and China’s own lack of supply. The situation came to a head in 2015, when supermarkets began imposing a four-tin-per-shopper limit, in response to the growing presence of Chinese “daigou” (personal shoppers) who would purchase Australian formula in bulk, and sell it to buyers in China at exorbitant prices.
At the time of writing this article, the video post on the Coles Facebook page had received 877 likes, 244 shares, and 795 comments, mostly from outraged parents. I get that this is a highly emotive issue. My own very premmie baby was formula fed and I would have sold my house to feed him. (These days, I might have to sell it to feed his pre-adolescent growth spurts.)
Of course, race was a hot topic in the hundreds of comments. One Facebook user even unhelpfully ‘joked’ that it was a matter for Pauline Hanson to take care of. Um, ok.
But there was one commenter who expressed the essence of the issue clearly. Michelle Palmer posted, “Ship directly to China. No Aussie mums need to go hunting store to store and no poor Chinese mums need to worry about sourcing safe formula…I would fight tooth and nail if I were a Chinese mum trying to give my baby safe formula.”
I totally agree with Michelle Palmer’s sentiments.
I remember years ago, my sister declared, “I would take food out of my own mouth to feed your children if they were hungry!” It was a slightly extreme response to what began as normal family argument about a packet of Tim Tams – and was met with hysterical laughter accordingly. But I’m using her now infamous quote as an example of how most parents would do anything to provide nourishment to their children. (Except, in my case, actually cook nourishing food.)
So we must remember that the problem has become this serious – reaching peak crisis levels - because of black market profiteers. And because money is basically the root of all evil. No one should be allowed to profit so disgracefully from parents’ desperation. And wealthier families who can afford the inflated prices shouldn’t be the only ones with access to quality nourishment.
Australian supermarkets and pharmacies – and private vigilantes armed with smartphones – have done the best they can to ensure the 4-tin rule is enforced. Because Australians love fairness and equality, which is why I love Australia.
So, what did this Aussie chick do that day in the supermarket, confronted with a desperate mother, two tins of formula for Brenda and Brandon, and $50?
Thinking it was a fair stretch to imagine she'd borrowed the twins from someone for the purposes of procuring formula to sell on the black market, I decided to help out a fellow mum. She looked exhausted. We all know how that feels. When you’re exhausted, and you just want to do what you need to and get out.
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And not be hassled for looking Asian.
I made a split-second decision, based on instinct. I took the tins and turned back around. By the time the manager got to the mum, I was at a machine. I heard him very quietly ask her, “Are you buying formula?”
I handed the tins and change to the woman when she left the shop. She was so grateful. She said to me, “I just couldn’t risk them not letting me take the tins, we’re almost out. And they always stop me. It’s so embarrassing.”
She was just another mum, buying formula for her babies. She has a right – nay, an obligation – to do that.
So, despite the crisis, I think we all need to keep our cool, and remember we’re in this together. If someone is sticking to the 4-tin limit, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Because every parent would take food out of their mouths to feed their children. It’s just a massive shame that too many people want to take advantage of that.
Nama Winston is a writer, whose favourite phrase is "now back to me", and passions include a deep desire for us all to be just bloody nicer to each other. You can follow her on Facebook.
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