Photo by Samantha Hogan

Mothers Make Difficult Choice: Diapers or Food?

Low-income mothers pay a heavy price every month when their babies are down to the last diaper, the can of formula is empty and they do not have enough money to buy both.

By Samantha Hogan For many financially at-risk moms, the choice between diapers and formula is a monthly reality that threatens the physical health of their child and their own mental health, according to Corinne Cannon, founder and executive director of the DC Diaper Bank. It is also a choice that they cannot afford to ignore. “In the earliest months and years, you are fundamentally building the immune system of a child for life,” said Nancy Roman, CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. in an interview with The Hungry DC reporter D’Ante Smith. There are federal programs designed to provide assistance to low-income mothers, but the aid often does not stretch far enough to clothe and feed a young child for a full month. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides food assistance to mothers and children up to the age of 5, covers some of the cost of formula. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance to households where an individual is pregnant or has a dependent below the age of 19, is the only aid that can be used toward hygiene products, such as diapers. “Formula and diapers are probably a parent’s worst nightmare when they have a newborn,” said Tamara “Tammy” Santiago, 22, a Boston mother and research participant who photographs the hunger and poverty she sees for Witnesses to Hunger.

A baby crawls on the floor. Photo by Niklas Morberg/Flickr.

A baby crawls on the floor. Photo by Niklas Morberg/Flickr.

Witnesses to Hunger is a research, service and advocacy project through The Center for Hunger-Free Communities that was started in 2004 at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia. Mothers from Philadelphia, and later multiple cities, were provided cameras to document hunger and poverty in their communities. Santiago’s son DJ was 6 months old when Witnesses to Hunger branched into Boston. She was 19, studying political science at Northeastern University and living in a shelter when she learned about the project, she said. “We were able to take these pictures and put a voice to things people didn’t want to look up to or be aware of,” Santiago said. The reality was mostly bare fridges, unsafe neighborhoods, inefficient housing programs, improperly communicated casework, diaperless children and formula that ran out too early. Buying “diapers is like paying a bill you can’t afford,” said Bonita Cuff, 45, a Boston mother of five. Cuff said the problem was often not diapers but formula that was supposed to be covered by WIC but that ran out two weeks into the month. She would have to decide between paying rent or her phone bill or buying formula, Cuff said. “This is not how we choose to live,” Cuff said. Santiago and Cuff were among several women to travel to D.C. at the beginning of April to speak with Congress about the realities of hunger. In February, Congress approved an $8.7 billion reduction in funds over the next decade to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that provides a monthly food stipend, more commonly known as “food stamps,” to low-income families. “Senators are ignorant,” Cuff said. “They’re quick to cut, but they won’t go out to families to see if this is a good idea.” While in D.C., Witnesses to Hunger hosted an exhibit of the mothers’ photographs at the Rayburn House Office Building, right down the street from Congress. The women were present to talk about their experiences with any congressional representatives who came to look. Not many came. A few sent aides.

Buying ‘diapers is like paying a bill you can’t afford.’

– Bonita Cuff, mother of five

The real cost of a diaper

Children typically wear diapers from ages 0 through 3. An infant uses eight to 10 diapers a day, and a toddler can use approximately six to eight diapers a day, according to Cannon of the DC Diaper Bank. This adds up to “real money, real fast,” said Cannon, who oversees the distribution of 60,000 to 70,000 diapers a month to approximately 2,000 low-income families in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The inability to diaper a child forces the mother and child to stay inside the home, Cannon said. Staying home reduces the socialization opportunities of the mother and child. This can result in mental health issues for the mother and delayed development of the child. Cannon, 35, is a mother of two who studied cognitive anthropology at The London School of Economics. She started the DC Diaper Bank shortly before her son’s first birthday after she was “blown away” by how hard it was to care for him, despite having the economic means to feed and diaper him, Cannon said. The DC Diaper Bank focuses on distributing diapers, building awareness and advocating for change, Cannon said. Cannon does this work because diapers are not a luxury item. Diapers are a safe place for an infant or toddler to go to the bathroom. Yet, too often low-income families have to make the decision between purchasing an adequate supply of diapers or enough food to make it through the month. “These aren’t choices anyone wants to make,” Cannon said. The DC Diaper Bank works with 20 community partners that address the local needs of low-income households from the heart of D.C. to rural Virginia, Cannon said. Santiago had never heard of a diaper bank until our interview on April 4. Her son is now 4 years old. Massachusetts Resources lists eight diaper banks or free diaper assistance programs around Boston, where Santiago lives. Eligibility ranges but families can potentially receive 30 diapers a month, according to the website. However, Santiago said she would have rather bought food than diapers while she was living at the shelter. She said it was better to fill her son’s stomach than put him in a new diaper, because she could clean a used diaper, make her own diaper or wash him instead. Reusing a disposable diaper increases the risk of rash and infection, Cannon said. Making the decision between food or diapers is more complicated for breastfeeding mothers, who must stretch their money to eat healthy to maintain the quality of their breast milk, said Angela Sutton, 39, a Philadelphia mom of two who breastfed both her children and supplemented with formula.

Hope and fear for an uncertain future

What, then, is next for poverty, hunger and at-risk moms in D.C.? Despite a recent upturn in the economy, Cannon said she is not hopeful about the future of D.C.’s poverty landscape. “Though the Great Recession has ended,”

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Cannon said. “The trickle down has not.” Rep.

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Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is one of the few political advocates currently working to address the diaper challenge at-risk mothers face. More than three years ago, DeLauro introduced the DIAPER Act, a bill that would allow day care centers to purchase diapers for children under 3. It died in committee. “Too many in Congress today do not understand or care for the plight of the most vulnerable in our society,” DeLauro said in a May 5 email. “We see this clearly when Congress passes legislation to support those that are well off in our nation while pushing policies that would decimate the social safety net for those at the bottom of the economic [ladder].” Even with TANF assistance, some families are still left to make the decision between purchasing food, formula or diapers when assistance does not match real world costs. “I think the developed community is realizing, ‘Gosh, we used to work on hunger as a sort of human compassion and justice issue, but now there’s a real reason to work on hunger to really build the kind of society you want,’” Roman said. “You want healthy, educated citizens, and food and nutrition are foundational to all those things.” Cuff, Sutton and Santiago talked about children who were flourishing. Cuff’s daughter is an honor roll student, and Sutton’s sons are on track to attend one of the best schools in the state. They all want better lives for their children, which starts with having enough money to feed them. “What we’re trying to do as witnesses is show our children that you can change your circumstances. You can change it if you fight and you believe and you hope,” Sutton said.