Keiko Zoll singlehandedly launched a nationwide site to match those needing baby formula with donors. Photo: Steven A. Rosenberg/Journal Staff
By Shelley A. Sackett
SWAMPSCOTT — Until her mom, who lives in New Jersey, casually mentioned the nationwide baby formula shortage to Keiko Zoll, news of the crisis was not on her radar. While Zoll was aware of the Abbott formula recall in February, as the mother of a 9-year-old son she hadn’t given it a second thought. “Recalls happen all the time,” she told the Journal, “and I’m a bit removed from the early parenting space.”
Sitting in her car, the nonprofit communications professional tuned into a podcast, “The Baby Formula Crisis,” to learn more. What she heard left her shaken and sobbing in her Swampscott driveway.
Story after story of mothers going to desperate lengths just to feed their babies unleashed memories of what it was like for her when her son was born six weeks prematurely and she had to locate a specialty formula that was critical to his survival and hard to find. She couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to deal with the added stress of a nationwide shortage at the same time.
An interview with a mother ready to pay hundreds of dollars for a single can of formula was Zoll’s tipping point. “As a mother, as a human being, how could anyone not empathize with these women?” she said. “For me, knowing there are babies who may die if they don’t receive the formula they need to survive – it was just too much.”
She knew she had to do something. That night, after her work as director of communications for the Boston Schools Fund, she started building a website to connect families who need formula with those able to donate it.
Just before midnight on Friday, May 13, the Free Formula Exchange website went live. Zoll emailed 300 personal and professional contacts in her network announcing its launch. By the end of the first week, there were 10,000 requests and 1,000 donors from all over the country.
“While this platform doesn’t increase the supply of formula, it does leverage existing supply that most people don’t realize they have access to,” she said.
Zoll said she was outraged and disgusted by reports of people price-gouging formula online. She emphasized that freeformula.exchange is 100 percent free. Users must create an account to access its database, but no money exchanges hands.
“It was important to me to design a solution that removed the marketplace from the transaction. Cost shouldn’t be a barrier to feeding children.”
Zoll is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves when it comes to helping others. She is a founding member of the Swampscott Antiracism Caucus and helped organize March Like a Mother for Black Lives in Boston in June, 2020, in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. She has volunteered extensively for and served on the board of RESOLVE New England, a nonprofit supporting those struggling with infertility.
She is also a member of the Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All committee at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, where she sits on the temple’s board of directors.
Zoll emphasizes that her experiences as a biracial woman have informed her activism throughout her adult life. “I know what it feels like to be unseen and unheard,” she said, referencing the bias, discrimination, and marginalization she has encountered
In addition, her personal values, which “exist at the intersection of Jewish belief and Japanese tradition,” have strongly influenced her volunteerism. She credits the Jewish emphasis on tikkun olam (repair the world) and the Japanese cultural belief known as wabi-sabi (an acceptance of the imperfection of life) as major guiding forces.
“My worldview settles into a comfortable space between these two beliefs: one that accepts our human flaws and also fights for just causes.”
Zoll knows firsthand how draining and overwhelming the onslaught of negative news can be. “It’s especially hard to be a parent in America right now. There are so few systemic supports and inequities abound,” she said.
She urges everyone who can to help out with the nationwide baby formula shortage, whether by scouring stores for formula to donate or simply providing a compassionate ear or shoulder or hug to support those parents who are totally stressed out.
“There are many ways we can all practice chesed (acts of loving-kindness) to our fellow humans in their time of need,” she said.