ST. LOUIS — Disposable diaper shortages among families in need are harming infants and their parents, according to health care providers and advocates for the poor.
Local food pantries receive countless requests for diapers but are unable to meet the demand, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Melinda Ohlemiller, CEO of Nurses for Newborns, said the organization would need as many as 10,000 diapers a day for its mostly poor clients but can only supply a dozen diapers per person in an emergency.
A 2013 study the medical journal Pediatrics identified "diaper need" among the poor as a growing health and psychological risk for babies and their mothers, who are more prone to depression.
"There's just a great need in our community, and no one is calling attention to this," said DiAnne Mueller, CEO of Crisis Nursery, a regional child abuse prevention agency. Crisis Nursery workers who go door-to-door in poor neighborhoods to ask people what they need are almost always asked for diapers and formula, she said.
Formula purchases can be federally subsidized, but diapers are not covered by food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.
"We're giving people four to six diapers when in reality when most people buy a box of diapers, they're getting 24 or 48. It's like giving one tiny bar of soap a month. It's not enough — it's a token gesture," said Marcia Mermelstein, coordinator of the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry in St. Louis. "They're taking diapers that are clearly too small and taping them together and using whatever they can."
Some cities and regions have developed diaper banks that collect and promote donated diapers and act as a clearinghouse to agencies such as food pantries and community outreach centers. The National Diaper Bank Network in Connecticut says about 100 established diaper banks operate nationwide, including Happy Bottoms in Kansas City, which has distributed more than 1.5 million diapers to agencies that work with the poor.
Social worker Jessica Adams is organizing a nonprofit St. Louis diaper bank that would accept charitable donations and help distribute the diapers to those in need. Adams said she realized the need after going through a divorce with a toddler and three older children. Money was scarce, and she relied on food pantries to get by.
"I had to call family members for money for diapers," she told the newspaper. "It's humiliating, absolutely humiliating."
Nurses for Newborns and Crisis Nursery workers describe mothers rinsing out and then reusing disposable diapers, as well as seeing severe cases of diaper rash.
"Diapers are mandatory. They're not optional," said Ohlemiller. "And yet families are making really hard decisions: Are we going to buy diapers or formula or are we going to buy food? That stress is putting a lot of hardships on families."
Ohlemiller said cheaper cloth diapers are typically not an option for poorer residents who often lack working washers and dryers. Coin laundries often ban diapers in their machines for sanitary reasons. And child care centers also often ban cloth diapers.