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The Founder Of Free Formula Exchange On Moms Helping Moms

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Photo By Aleksandar Novoselski

With data suggesting baby formula inventory is down 40% in the U.S., the stress on families is very real. For countless babies and older children with highly specialized diets, having access to the right formula is a matter of life or death. Naturally, the feeling of helplessness is at fever pitch for many—and one Massachusetts-based activist and mother, Keiko Zoll, decided to do something about it. Meet FreeFormulaExchange.com, a nationwide mutual aid platform connecting families who need baby formula to people who have surplus formula to donate. Below, the mother of a formerly formula-fed premmie son (now 9-years-old) tells us about Free Formula Exchange and how you can get involved. 

What was your inspiration for starting Free Formula Exchange?
“As the mom of a nine-year-old, I’m not connected to the early parenting space anymore and wasn’t even aware of a baby formula shortage until my mom mentioned it to me in passing. The next day, I fired up a news podcast on the topic on the way to a doctor’s appointment and was horrified and overcome listening to story after story of desperate mothers just trying to keep their babies fed right now. After hearing the story of a mom who was ready to pay $300 for a single can of formula on eBay, I couldn’t take it anymore: I decided right there, in that moment sitting in my driveway and sobbing in my car, that I needed to do something.”

What, in a nutshell, what does your organization do?
“You are generous to call Free Formula Exchange an organization! It started truly as a one-woman effort. I built the website in a matter of hours on a Friday night, and sent out an email to about 300 personal and professional connections in my network just before midnight into Saturday. After a few dozen requests came in that first 12 hours, the demand for the website skyrocketed, spreading through online Facebook communities and word of mouth, as well as receiving extensive media attention. Due to the sheer demand for the website, I’ve had to expand this one-woman operation into a small team of close friends who are volunteering their time to help me build this out into a sustainable tool for the foreseeable future.” 

“In a nutshell, Free Formula Exchange solves a complex problem with a simple solution by connecting people who need baby formula right now to people who have it to donate. If you need formula, simply go to the website and click on the button that says ‘I need formula.’ If you have formula to donate, simply click on the button that says ‘I can donate.’ From there, each party fills out a simple form collecting basic information. They are then prompted to create a free account through the website (I don’t do anything with this information) to provide an extra layer of protection for the data to which requesters and donors then have access: A searchable database of available donors and requests, so that both requesters and donors can match-make on their own to meet critical needs and get babies fed. It’s then up to requestors and donors to work out the logistics of their exchange.”

What has the response been like so far?
“The response has been overwhelming and climbing exponentially every day. There are between 100 and 200 users at the sight every minute. Within its first week since it was launched, we’ve received over 8,000 quests for baby formula from all 50 states. For every 8 to 9 requests for formula, we have about 1 donor available to meet the need.” 

What’s the biggest ask you have for folks right now?
“I have two big asks: the first is simply patience. I had no idea this website would become this needed so quickly, so I’ve been working to scale the site to meet demand as quickly as possible. It is very much a volunteer-led labor of love right now. I’m fortunate that my employer has been supportive, allowing me to take some last-minute paid time off to keep up with the site. But I am a full-time working mom, and Free Formula Exchange has now taken up a considerable amount of my free time. I give that time willingly, don’t get me wrong: it’s just that site upgrades and fixes may take longer to roll out than if I was a fully staffed, fully incorporated organization or company. Right now it’s a small but mighty team of volunteers just trying to keep up.”

“The second ask I have is for parents of newborns and infants to seek us out to donate their excess or surplus formula. Many people don’t realize that there are families willing to accept formula that’s been opened. The uniqueness of the Free Formula Exchange platform is that it doesn’t create excess demand on an already strained market; it merely makes existing product out there in the market more accessible and available to families who didn’t know it existed.”

“We’ve also just launched a GoFundMe to help offset costs for maintaining the site, as well as building out more functionality as we continue to scale to meet the demand from the public for this platform. You can learn more and donate at GoFundMe.”

Keiko and her son in the NICU.

What was your own experience with formula?
“My son was born 6.5 weeks early and despite my best efforts to exclusively breastfeed, we ended up needing to supplement with formula. Even then, he wasn’t able to thrive and we needed to move exclusively to formula, which was an exceptionally hard decision but ultimately the best one for our family. My son had acid reflux and colic, which made his formula needs more niche than most mainstream brands, and his expensive formula was sometimes difficult to obtain.” 

“That’s what makes this baby formula shortage crisis so real for me, even though I am no longer the parent of an infant, because I’ve been that mom and I remember what it was like to be overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed out just trying to keep my baby fed and healthy. I can’t fathom being that same preemie mom in the middle of a national shortage. It’s from that deep well of empathy that I felt compelled to act in this moment, because it was clear to me no one else was.”

Beyond running Free Formula Exchange, what do you do professionally?
“I am the Director of Communications for Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit advancing K-12 educational equity for historically marginalized students and families in Boston. I am also a writer, activist, and aspiring public servant in my spare time.”

For more, head over to FreeFormulaExchange.com and follow @keikozoll on Instagram.

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