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Baby formula locked up at some London, Ont., stores, parents say thefts show desperation over high costs

An increasing number of grocery stores in London, Ont., are locking up baby formula as parents struggle to pay for a food item they say their children can’t live without.

CBC News visited several big stores in the east end of the city, including Food Basics on Oxford Street, where formula was kept behind Plexiglas and required staff assistance to access it.

“It’s absolutely disgusting that we’ve reached a point where people have to resort to stealing to feed their child,” said Alyssa Cassidy, a mother who fed her daughter a combination of formula and breast milk at the height of the formula shortage in 2022.

“I think it’s classist. If you have the money, then it’s not a big deal. For the people who don’t, it’s just awful and sad.”

Baby formula being under lock and key as pictured here in a London Food Basics store, isn't new, according to one grocery store chain. Researcher Lesley Frank says it's becoming more prevalent outside of big cities, though.
Baby formula is under lock and key in a London Food Basics store, but the move isn’t new, according to one grocery store chain. But researcher Lesley Frank says it’s becoming more prevalent outside of big cities. (Alessio Donnini/CBC News)

CBC has reported previously on stores in other parts of Canada that are putting formula under lock and key.

Lesley Frank, Canada Research Chair in food, health and social justice at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, has said stores have been locking up goods for years but it’s more commonly seen in larger cities like Toronto. 

The average price of baby formula has risen 30 per cent between 2022 and 2024, according to Statistics Canada, more than the price of other food products.

London parents told CBC News that a week’s worth of formula can cost anywhere from $30 to $70. 

“It’s been a struggle,” Stephanie Green said. “You have to sacrifice sometimes, or choose between one child having more or less, even. They [grocery chains] know it’s so overpriced that people are going to start stealing it.”

Green said that between her two children, she goes through a $40 tub of formula in one week by buying a less pricey brand. She said that to stretch the food further, she’s registered for samples and testers.

Alyssa Cassidy partially formula-fed her daughter June, and said she hoped the end of the formula shortage would be enough to lower prices.
Alyssa Cassidy partially formula-fed her daughter June and says she hoped the end of the formula shortage would be enough to lower prices. (Alessio Donnini/CBC News)

A spokesperson for grocery giant Metro, which owns Food Basics, said the company has been rolling out equipment to secure baby formula to prevent theft for several years in Ontario.

“You have to put your kids first. If you’re not stealing formula, you’re stealing food,” said Amanda Brasier, a London mother who said her oldest daughter needed specialty lactose-free formula, which amounted to $50 per week for one child.

“I’ve been put in the situation of formula or bills. It’s ridiculous.”

Brasier said she has been fortunate and has never had to steal formula or stolen it, but other mothers tell her they decided to steal for their children when they felt they couldn’t afford to live.

Survey of low-income families highlights strain

Formula shelves at a Shopper Drug Mart location in east London. The products are locked behind a plexiglass barrier.
Formula shelves at a Shopper Drug Mart in east London. The products are locked behind Plexiglas. (Alessio Donnini/CBC News)

Frank, who has has spent over a decade studying how the cost of baby formula impacts families, said she’s tried to make sense of why prices continue to remain high and said there is no clear answer.

“Producers would probably blame higher factory costs, ingredient costs, energy costs. We’re also reliant on a few international corporations and there’s very little market competition,” Frank said. 

In 2022, she conducted a study of 1,500 families with children younger than two years old. The answers to her questions provided her with statistical data indicating the hard choices low-income families have to make to buy formula.

“Thirty-one per cent of those families were food insecure and of those, over 64 per cent were worried about having enough money to buy formula,” Frank said. CBC News has not verified the methodology of the study. 

She said more than half of the families bought formula instead of paying bills and almost five per cent admitted they had stolen formula before.

“It’s a small number [those who stole], but that would be your most desperate moment, to go into a high-surveillance place and commit a crime to feed your baby.”

Frank believes governments need to do more to remedy sky-high formula costs, and the creation of baby food banks in Canada and other high-income countries is an indication of the growing problem, she said.

“The story never goes away, but it never seems to get the attention of the government,” she said.

She also advocates for the Canada Child Benefit to include extra money for the first year of a child’s life, when nutritional needs are higher.

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