Nationwide shortage shows no signs of ending soon
BENSONHURST — “This is my fourth store!” an exasperated Lisa Shelton said as she stood in the aisle of a Rite Aid on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst on Sunday, staring at a nearly-empty shelf that normally would be stocked with baby formula.
Shelton, who gave birth to a baby boy last month, said she was down to her last two bottles of Similac and was feeling desperate.
“I can’t believe we have to go through this. I figured, ‘let me try this store.’ I left my husband in the car so I could run in here,” she explained before quickly leaving the Rite Aid empty-handed.
Shelton is one of millions of mothers across the city and the U.S. who are grappling with a growing shortage of baby formula.
Raquel DeLuca, an assignment editor at The Tablet, had a baby girl, Siena, in April. On Friday, she went to no less than 10 stores in her area in search of the elusive formula.
Her sister found a Facebook group for mothers where a member was offering a small supply.
“She got into a cab, went up to Harlem, got a few bottles from a mom, then got in the cab and went to Queens to get a few bottles from a dad,” DeLuca said. “These are the things my family has had to do.”
The shortage, brought on by supply chain issues and a product recall from Abbott — one of only a few U.S.-based companies that manufacture baby formula — has caused serious problems for parents trying to feed their little ones.
“People are learning how deeply these supply chain issues can affect your life,” said Currents News reporter Jessica Easthope, who gave birth to a baby girl, Violet, in April. “Before, supply chain disruptions meant people were dealing with problems with a home renovation or their kitchen table not being delivered. But this is so much more serious than anyone ever thought it could get and is now affecting something that is really crucial and scary,” she said.
As of April, approximately 31% of formula was out of stock in stores across the country, and in seven states — Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington — the rate was 40%.
On Monday, Abbott and the Food and Drug Administration reached an agreement to reopen the company’s manufacturing plant to help ease the shortage, after the facility was closed due to bacterial contamination. According to the FDA, Abbott will correct unsanitary conditions that led to contamination, the closure, and a product recall. The plant can open in two weeks, officials said, but it will take another six to eight weeks before the formula will arrive on store shelves.
With formula in such short supply, some retailers are limiting the quantity customers can purchase. CVS, for example, allows customers to buy only up to three at a time.
“Similar to other retailers, we put into effect purchase limits of three per transaction on all infant and toddler formula to help improve inventory,” a CVS spokesperson said in a statement to The Tablet.
The shortage has also hit food pantries and service organizations in the Diocese of Brooklyn hard. “We have literally run out of baby formula,” said Sister Caroline Tweedy, executive director of St. John’s Bread and Life, a food pantry and social services program in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “We can give mothers diapers, but we can’t give them formula.”
Many of St. John’s clients are low-income families on the federal government’s Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program.
At The Bridge to Life, a pro-life organization in College Point, Queens that assists mothers and children with food, clothing, and supplies, executive director Francesca Yellico said baby formula is running low. “Unfortunately, our supplies are suffering. But we are doing what we can to keep up with the needs of our families,” she said.
The shortage is leaving mothers frantic and in some cases angry at the turn of events, particularly when they read media reports of shipments of baby formula at the U.S.-Mexico border for newly-arrived immigrants.
“I would never want to see any child deprived of food, but how about taking care of American citizens first?” asked one Bay Ridge mother, who requested anonymity.
However, the U.S. government is obligated to provide formula to the babies of immigrants at the border under the Flores Agreement, a 1997 action stemming from a lawsuit filed by immigration advocates against the government.
Easthope is nursing her baby but said that isn’t a viable option for all mothers. In some cases, the baby doesn’t latch properly and in other cases, the mother can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby.
“I think every mother on the face of the planet when they have a new baby that’s on formula knows the stresses of eating,” she said. “You worry, is my baby getting enough? The stresses of feeding consume your life, especially in those first few months. And now adding to the stress is the baby formula shortage. It’s really scary.”
Congress is also looking at ways to ease the shortage and is expected to vote on two bills within the next week — one that would allocate funding to purchase baby formula from Chile, Ireland, Mexico, and the Netherlands and another bill that would ease restrictions on what types of formula parents can buy with WIC cards.
However, it’s not clear how quickly the foreign-made products would make it to store shelves in the U.S.
Adding to the anxiety parents are feeling are scams on the internet in which people offer to sell formula, only to walk away leaving the customer empty-handed. “These poor mothers give these people their credit card number and then find out there’s no baby formula and that they’ve been scammed. It’s heartbreaking,” Sister Caroline said.
But the shortage is also highlighting something positive — the generosity of mothers.
DeLuca, for example, had a small supply of a brand of baby formula on hand that her daughter couldn’t tolerate digestively. She let another mother have it.
“I had stocked up on NeuroPro and I was stuck with it,” she said. “I wrote about it on Facebook and someone came and picked it up from my house.”
Easthope said she’s seen the good and bad sides of social media during the shortage.
“People that are getting scammed are devastated,” she said. “But for every horror story, I’ve heard five amazing stories of women who are shipping formula to other mothers, perfect strangers, across the country for free.”