Christina Hoag | Freelance Writer

Published May 15, 2020

Toilet paper, disinfectant and baking supplies are not the only shortages due to COVID-19. Add disposable diapers to the list.

“We’ve heard reports of packages of diapers going for $80,” said Christina Altmayer, vice president of programs at First 5 LA. “It’s price gouging.”

The reports spurred First 5 LA to launch a mission last month to hunt down free diapers for families in need. The effort culminated with the successful distribution of more than 1 million diapers around Los Angeles County.

First 5 LA was the connector between a broad range of public, private and nonprofit organizations, including Paramount Studios, Baby2Baby, LA n Sync, Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) and Women Infants and Children (WIC), that teamed up to gather and distribute over 1 million diapers to needy families around Los Angeles County last month. The diapers came from several sources: about 900 from First 5 LA, 50,000 from WIC and 1 million from Baby2Baby.

“It was all about mobilizing a network of people,” Altmayer said. “It sounded really simple at first, but it took a lot of coordination.”

The initiative emerged from an April 1 phone call between staffers at First 5 LA and LA Best Babies Network, who reported that the price of diapers had skyrocketed due to high demand and a shortage caused by people buying to stock up.

First 5 LA pulled 900 diapers that it had on hand for baby-changing stations at events and delivered them to the organization nearest to its downtown L.A. office: Para Los Niños.

Then staffers kept searching for more diapers and learned that 50,000 packages —donated to the WIC program by Baby2Baby, a national nonprofit that provides necessities for low-income children — were in a warehouse in Irwindale. The warehouse, however, was closed due to L.A. County’s safer-at-home order.

First 5 LA obtained permission from both Baby2Baby and WIC to distribute the packages and open the warehouse. However, there was a catch: the diapers at the warehouse were stored one size per pallet, but an assortment of sizes had to be delivered to each of the four distribution sites lined up.

WIC employees agreed to unpack the pallets and repack them with a variety of sizes. There was still another hurdle: finding transportation to ship the diapers.

Another round of calls was placed through First 5 LA’s network, resulting in contacts at LA n Sync, an organization under the California Community Foundation that works to improve life in L.A. County, reaching out to Paramount Studios. Paramount immediately agreed to donate a truck and driver.

“It’s a very small investment that for these families means so much,” said Jennifer M. Lynch, senior vice president of corporate responsibility & internal communications at Paramount. “Everyone felt very grateful for the opportunity to help.”

On April 27, all the pieces came together — 50,000 packages of diapers were sorted, picked up, and delivered to Shields for Families in South Los Angeles, Antelope Valley Partners for Health in Lancaster, Providence Little Company of Mary in Wilmington, and the Black Infant Health Program run by the California Department of Public Health. Days later, Baby2Baby directly delivered its shipment of 1 million packages to the sites.

First 5 LA staff said they couldn’t have done it alone. “It was a lot of helping hands from connections that we hadn’t made before,” said First 5 LA Senior Program Officer Diana Careaga-Durden.

The effort shows the importance of networking, especially in a sprawling county like Los Angeles, which encompasses 88 cities over 5,000 square miles, noted Ellah Ronen, a program officer for LA n Sync. “It’s amazing the number of things that can happen when you leverage connections,” she said.

Newborns can soil up to 10 diapers a day, making the affordability of this basic necessity a challenge for families already balancing the cost of food, rent and other household expenses. With many workers now unemployed due to the pandemic, parents are hard-pressed to find the $70 to $80 it costs to diaper a child every month.

“Access to diapers has become such a huge issue,” said Marisa Muma, a disaster relief specialist for Baby2Baby in Los Angeles. “They are a really high-cost item, and now it’s really hard for families to afford them.”

Parents are making do by handwashing disposable diapers, air-drying them and reusing them, which Muma believes has led to increased diaper rash. “We’ve seen a big uptick in requests for diaper rash cream. It’s become an issue,” she said.

The pandemic has also caused a widespread diaper shortage. Similar to the run on toilet paper, higher-income families have stocked up on diapers, as well as other baby essentials such as wipes and infant formula, leaving store shelves empty.

“(Low-income) families are using milk and watering down formula,” Muma said. “Some of them don’t have a stable water source and now they can’t afford to buy water.”

These families not only lack the resources to buy in bulk but also often don’t have cars to get to big-box stores and supermarkets. The virus has made them scared to take public transportation, particularly if they’re going to find empty shelves, Muma said. Their only resort is corner stores, which often charge higher prices for goods. “People are really struggling,” she noted.

The current crisis underscores the fact that organizations need each other more than ever to help create a stronger safety net to protect the youngest members of our society, First 5 LA’s Altmayer said.

“If we can build trusting networks of relationships with grantees and partners and leverage those relationships, we become an unstoppable force for change that can transform systems and promote the well-being of families and little kids throughout L.A. County,” she said.