We were sitting at the neighborhood pool when I asked my friend if she’d heard of any local mothers struggling to find infant formula. “No,” she said, shaking her head in relief. “Not around here. But have you heard about the fires in the food factories?” 

The shortage of formula, which began with a recall of potentially dangerous products and spiraled out of control, is real. But a handful of small fires at some food processing facilities is simply fodder for an unfounded conspiracy theory pushed by far right politicians and pundits such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News. The theory spins a string of unconnected industrial accidents into purported evidence of a plot between Democrats and globalists to disrupt the U.S. food supply chain.

How a real crisis and a fake one got connected in the mind of at least one Midland mother is telling about how baffling the formula shortage has been to many in West Texas. How can one of the most prosperous nations in the world run shockingly low on food for infants? Doesn’t some nefarious plot have to be involved? Midlanders have been grasping for answers to those questions. Rumors have quietly rippled through the community, shared poolside and on playdates between mothers. 

One friend told me he’d heard that the federal government was redirecting formula stock to Ukraine. My sister-in-law heard there are stockpiles of formula at the U.S. border that the government is saving for migrants. “I haven’t checked it out myself,” she said. “But people are angry since they can’t find formula here.”

Buried among these rumors are kernels of truth. A Mississippi nonprofit did send donated formula to Ukraine, but the quantities involved had little impact on domestic supplies, and the nonprofit stopped asking for formula donations once the U.S. began to run low. The federal government is providing formula to migrant babies at the border, as it is required to do under a 1997 agreement called the Flores settlement. Governor Greg Abbott’s grandstanding against the policy may have helped to spur rumors about a stockpile, fed by a widely shared picture that turns out not to be formula at the border but a 2020 image of stockpiled masks, that have been disproven. Like many half-truths, rumors about the cause of the formula crisis are hard to trace and even harder to contain. They’re having an effect even on those who don’t consider themselves conspiracy theorists.

There is genuine anger and confusion in Midland about the formula shortage. Local moms have joined others across the country in trying to buy supplies off Amazon from Canada, but they’ve been thwarted by regulations governing the importation of formula. For parents who are scared that they won’t be able to feed their babies, the abundance of formula in Canada seems proof enough that either something more sinister is afoot or that the U.S. is not the world leader it once was.

Jennifer Ramos, a Midland mother who is expecting twins later this summer, told me, “You could go across the border right now and get eight cans of formula from Mexico with no problem. But we have empty shelves here in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It’s unbelievable.”

While relatively few West Texans seem to put much stock in conspiracy theories that blame the federal government for creating this debacle, it’s hard to find anyone who believes that Washington will efficiently sort out this mess. “People don’t necessarily trust the government,” Ramos said, “but they do trust each other.”

With an average 52 percent out-of-stock rate for the week ending May 8, Texas has been among the hardest-hit states by the formula shortfall. Finding formula often requires serendipitous timing and trekking around town to check supplies at multiple stores. That involves time and plenty of extra money for gas, resources in short supply for many mothers. Too often, the frantic and stressful search proves fruitless.

So Midland parents have turned to one another for help, in the process creating a word-of-mouth network that seems to be successfully filling the formula need for many. Dr. Debbie Reese, a veteran Midland pediatrician, told me she’s been able to find alternative formulas, such as those used for lactose-intolerant babies, for her patients in part because “moms have used Facebook to try to help each other and redistribute formula.”

One Midland mother didn’t turn to Facebook, but she did call on friends to help her find the special formula she needs for her ten-month-old daughter, who has food allergies. When she couldn’t find it in the stores she visited, she asked friends to help her search online and ended up with a two-week supply. Even if she could find more now, she can’t afford to buy it, so she hopes there won’t be a shortage when her next round of benefits arrives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutritional program.

Carly Watkins has a five-month-old daughter, Raleigh, who has severe acid reflux and is on a formula that seemingly disappeared from shelves overnight. She hasn’t been able to find any cans of the formula she needs in Midland and has relied on family and friends in Houston, Dallas, and San Angelo for help locating it. “Right now I have enough formula to feel a little less panicked than I did,” Watkins told me. “But there are still so many unknowns. I’m waking up at about four a.m. each day to check Target, Walmart, H-E-B, and Amazon to see if they have anything in stock. If I check at eight or nine, it’s gone.”

Parents have found creative ways to help one another, from donating frozen breast milk to posting pictures of store shelves on local Facebook groups for parents, along with the times and dates of the photos, so that others can see what’s in stock. Some people traveling to Mexico are making stops to pick up formula for friends before coming back into the U.S. “I have a list of formulas my friends are using for their babies,” Watkins said, “and I’m looking for all of them every time I go anywhere, and looking for them every time I am online looking for what I need. We have all rallied around each other to keep our babies fed.”

So far, this grassroots effort seems to be working. No one I spoke to knows of babies or mothers in the area who haven’t been able to stay supplied. According to director Libby Campbell, the West Texas Food Bank is running low on formula, but it hasn’t run out. Midland YoungLives, a ministry that provides mentorship and support to teen moms, has also ensured all its moms have found what they need for their babies.

Samantha Mendoza, the communications director for the South Plains Community Action Association, which oversees WIC in West Texas, told me, “It’s a triumph for the community to have banded together in such an uncertain time.”

This sentiment is echoed all around town. “The only positive to come out of this shortage,” said Kasey Sullivan, a Midland mother of a three-month-old, “is how moms have come together to help one another.”

The formula shelves might be bare, but across West Texas—indeed, across the state—mothers are doing their best to take care of one another, making sacrifices so that others can have what they need for their babies. After all, that’s what it means to be a mom.