WATERTOWN — Few things have the power to occupy a parent’s mind more than the health of their children.

The nationwide infant formula shortage, brought on by supply chain issues and a major formula recall, has left many concerned about their options for feeding their little ones. Northern New York has not been immune to what has become a common sight in grocery stores across the country: empty spaces on shelves that used to be filled by infant formula. At Price Chopper and other stores in the north country, signs tell customers to see a sales associate to have them unlock the formula they need — if it’s in stock — and customers are only allowed to buy a certain amount at any given time.

The infant formula market was heavily disrupted when the Sturgis, Michigan, Abbott Nutrition plant recalled popular powdered formulas in February, then shut down. Those recalled products included powder formula sold under the labels Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels after four children became ill with bacterial infections and two died. Abbott is one of the largest manufacturers of infant formula in the U.S.

The Sturgis plant, through an Abbott deal with the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to resume operations in early June.

During a House hearing on Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf detailed “egregiously unsanitary” conditions at the Sturgis plant and acknowledged the FDA’s response to the problems was too slow.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations heard from Mr. Califf and Abbott Senior Vice President of U.S. Nutrition Christopher J. Calamari.

Legislation to help ease the infant formula shortage has been progressing through Congress this month.

The Access to Baby Formula Act was approved in the House by a 414-9 vote and passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The legislation expands pandemic-era flexibilities granted to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC participants. President Joseph R. Biden signed the bill into law on May 21.

The Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act would allocate $28 million in emergency funding to the FDA to bolster inspections of formula manufactured at foreign facilities and work to prevent future scarcities. The bill passed the House 231-192 in a mainly party-line vote. In the Senate, Republicans are arguing that giving more money to the FDA is not the solution to the shortage.

Last week, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase formula production and authorize aircraft to help speed shipment of infant formula to the United States from overseas. Initial shipments have already arrived.

About 2 million cans of infant formula made by U.K.-based Kendal Nutricare are expected to arrive on U.S. shelves starting next month after receiving special clearance from the FDA, the agency said earlier this week.

The ripple effects from the Sturgis plant closing have been widespread, with parents calling on friends and family to help locate food for their babies and some resorting to making their own formula at home, rationing supplies, or driving for hours in search of formula.

The New York State Department of Health has said it’s important that families don’t hoard formula, which will further impact the supply chain and other families. For families struggling to find the formula they need, the Department of Health recommends calling an infant’s medical provider to see if they have in-office samples or can suggest a similar formula that may be more readily available in stores; looking online for options available but only ordering from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies; refraining from using toddler formula to feed infants; and not watering down formula or trying to make infant formula at home.

A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE

Watertown mother Taylor M. Fields, 27, has experienced the effects of the formula shortage firsthand. Her son Stephen “Stevie” G. Terry turned 7 months old on Monday. He is eating some solids, but he still needs formula, as infants generally can begin with solids at about 6 months old, but should typically continue with either formula or breast milk until they’re a year old.

“I go to the store to check and there’s barely anything,” Ms. Fields said. “He’s on a certain kind and I would hate to switch him when he’s been on it since he was 3½ months old, and he does well on it.”

Ms. Fields said she’s lucky that Stevie doesn’t have any allergies and doesn’t spit up much, so she can buy the store-brand formula at a cheaper price and usually with more in each container than the name brands. Stevie is on Enfamil Gentlease and is usually given the generic version of it. On Tuesday, Ms. Fields was at the Route 3 Walmart and said the store had the name brand. One 12-ounce can cost $18, and she bought two of them.

She normally buys Stevie’s formula at Sam’s Club, but checks two or three times a week and said Sam’s Club has been out of stock. When in stock, it costs $24 for a 48-ounce canister of the formula, which lasts about 2½ weeks for Stevie. Ms. Fields said the struggle to find formula at all, and the added cost when she does, has been stressful.

“Me personally, I have family members like my aunt in Florida shipping it to me, but it’s just insane to me that my aunt is having to ship me formula and I can’t find it at my local grocery stores,” she said.

Babies all have different feeding needs, and families have different approaches to feeding their infants. And Ms. Fields stressed that breastfeeding and pumping breast milk is not as easy as it looks. When Stevie was first born, he was in the neonatal intensive care unit for a week on an IV drip, so she didn’t get to feed him with breast milk until he was a few days old.

“I exclusively pumped for the first four months of his life,” Ms. Fields said. “Pumping and breastfeeding for some women, it’s easy, it’s a natural thing. For me, getting him to latch was very difficult and having the stress of having a newborn baby, a baby that just came out of the NICU, I wasn’t going to stress about getting my baby to latch. I was producing breast milk, I was pumping and feeding him on that, but also with pumping comes a tedious, every two- to three-hour schedule you have to pump to keep your supply up. There’s also expenses that come with pumping.”

Eventually, she decided to stop pumping when Stevie was 4 months old as she was stressed about how much milk she was producing, and every day Stevie was drinking more milk and was hungrier than before. Ms. Fields shared that she still gives some breast milk to Stevie, but reiterated that breastfeeding and pumping is hard work for mothers. She said she has seen people trying to sell their breast milk and formula, which she believes to be wrong.

“Especially in a time like this, we should be donating that stuff, not trying to make a buck off other people’s pain and suffering,” Ms. Fields said. “I just would like to see the shelves full of formula again so I don’t have to be worried about not only my child, but all the other moms and babies that I know. I would like to see something like this never happen again. I feel like the shortage was creeping up on us every single day and things could have been done beforehand before it got this bad.”

“I would like for legislators and government officials to learn from their mistake with this because people shouldn’t be stressed about feeding their child,” she added.

Through the power of the internet, Ms. Fields learned about an infant formula exchange started by former Olympian Shawn Johnson East and her husband, in which parents can connect with others around the country and exchange formula if they need to. She signed up and is waiting to hear back about a match and said it’s nice to know that there are resources out there, but parents shouldn’t have to be doing this to feed their children.

“I have a couple of moms that I know, they’re dealing with the same thing and some of them get WIC,” Ms. Fields said. “I can’t even imagine walking into a store and not even seeing any option you can walk out with that day to feed your child; it breaks my heart every day, every time I walk down any baby aisle at any store.”

LOCAL HELP

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, is a federal assistance program of the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for health care and nutrition of low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children younger than 5. To help alleviate the formula shortage, the USDA has granted states waivers that would give WIC recipients more flexibility to choose alternative formula brands and sizes. WIC participants are urged to contact their local agency for assistance locating products.

Through Wanda, the Department of Health chatbot, New Yorkers can receive direct, accessible online navigation support through a “personal WIC assistant” and see if their infant is eligible for WIC benefits.

Angel M. Carter, WIC director for the North Country Family Health Center, said it can be confusing for families when they learn WIC doesn’t have formula on site.

“What we really do 90% of the time, is our staff are answering phone calls, talking to families about how to work through this shortage,” she said. “If they have a specific formula brand that they’re on — with WIC it’s a specific prescription — there’s only certain brands of formula they can buy. WIC is a supplement, so they usually have to buy extra formula every month anyway, so we just encourage them like when you see maybe an off brand that’s the same type of formula, purchase that one.”

Ms. Carter said there are some good alternatives for families to try — Parent’s Choice gentle formula is equivalent to Gentlease, or if parents see ProSobee which is another brand of soy, they can purchase that one if their regular soy formula is not available.

The local WIC offices have only received a waiver for soy formula so far. As of Tuesday, if a WIC participant has Isomil soy-powdered formula on their card, they can purchase the Isomil, Good Start brand or the ProSobee brand of soy.

“We listen to the families, we encourage them to speak to their health care provider for an alternative formula that meets their baby’s needs,” Ms. Carter said. “And we work with them to support them in making good formula preparation choices and good purchasing choices. One other good example of what we do a lot of — which is not normal, but we are doing it because of the shortage — is normally families pick powdered formula, it’s most convenient, but if they go to the store and they only have concentrated or ready to use, they’ll call us and we’ll work to change it so their card is suited to buy the liquid form instead of the powder.”

According to the United Way of Northern New York, the organization received a donation of formula about a month ago and ended up giving it to the Watertown Urban Mission to be distributed. The Urban Mission relies heavily on donations to be able to serve the community.

Briana C. Lee, of the Urban Mission Food Pantry, said the mission has some formula on hand, people just have to answer a few questions before receiving it.

“It’s a couple of questions to get them in the system, and then we can send them home with formula if we have the type that they need,” she said. “The intake is just their name, birthdays, address, phone number, their income, who else lived in the household, just the basics. Anybody is eligible, and we give one can because of the shortage; we can’t give too much.”

She said the Mission is currently out of the popular Gentlease, and that many more families than usual have been calling the organization in the past few weeks looking for formula. She said that if people have extra formula that’s not outdated and not going to expire anytime soon, it would be appreciated as a donation. The pantry is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Ms. Carter said that WIC staff have been noticing pregnant women talking a lot more about breastfeeding.

“If they already said to us, ‘I don’t plan on breastfeeding,’ now they’re more curious about breastfeeding, or women that are breastfeeding and having difficulties in supplementing with formula, we’ve had a lot more families that have stopped using formula and are now only breastfeeding,” she said. “So for those families that are fortunate to have already started breastfeeding or have a decent milk supply, they’ve been able to just increase breastfeeding and not be needing the formula, which helps their family but also helps the community as that is less people needing the formula.”

She said breastfeeding peer counselors have been very busy and WIC staff have been providing more breastfeeding support for the families that needed formula but now are trying to wean off it.

“It’s just very sad that this is happening,” Ms. Carter said. “We’re used to helping people, so this has been hard on our staff to think that there are parents that are stressed or worried about not being able to feed their babies. I just look forward to this being behind us and everybody continuing to work together always for the mission of making sure we have resources for our families to raise healthy, strong children.”

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Recommended for you

(5) comments

Eagle24

"Few things have the power to occupy a parent’s mind more than the health of their children." Couldn't agree more... the formula shortage will be fixed... in a short time this issue will be history.. School kids getting killed isn't going away... it's been going on since Columbine.. .20+ years ago and we still can't protect our kids.. and refuse to address the assault rifle issue.. thanks again Bushmaster/NRA/GOP... tick tock...

Joseph Savoca

Let's hope that no more babies die of bacterial infection.

Joseph Savoca

I am glad to see that, just like the recent massacres, the infant formula shortage hasn't been politicized.

HotelMike

Just more of Biden’s America last agenda. What an embarrassment.

Common sense

Lets all thank the demented and chief Biden. These radicals that move him in every direction will be the end of the country we know. This November lets fire every dam democrat in America.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.