Volunteers, Stores and State Work to Overcome Formula Shortage | Local News
While it takes a whole village to raise a child, as the saying goes, sometimes it takes a whole village to feed one when formula runs out.
The national infant formula shortage that began in February, triggered by formula maker Abbott’s temporary closure of one of its largest factories due to bacterial contamination, continues, with some still predicting months before limited supplies.
Locally, shelves once laden with infant formula are smooth as a baby’s bottom, cleaned by anxious mothers and loved ones helping to find what has become a sought-after commodity. Visits Friday to two local HEB stores, a Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy and Walmart revealed shopping limits, frustrated managers and customers and limited stock.
“We get 10 to 20 calls a day on truck days, Tuesday and Thursday, from customers checking formula,” said Adrian Gonzalez, manager of Walgreens on New Road. “We try to limit the number each customer can buy, but really it’s first come, first served. It’s gone at the end of the day.”
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Gonzalez said the shortages started about a month ago and have gotten worse.
At Walmart on Franklin Avenue, shopper Quiara Herron rejoiced when she spotted six bottles of Enfamil NeuroPro, an infant formula that her 4-month-old daughter, Novaa, tolerates well during the breastfeeding transition.
Herron said she checked with other local Walmart stores, Target, CVS and HEB stores before hitting the mother lode at South Waco Walmart. She even enlisted the help of parents in St. Louis, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio, who scoured the Midwest for her favorite formula.
A sign posted in Walmart’s infant formula aisle said sales starting today were limited to five units per customer per child.
The price hikes have caught the attention of attorneys general and lawmakers in several states. Five Texas congressmen have written a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton saying they are troubled by news of scams they have heard “anecdotally from parents and reports in the press.”
They said they had heard “reports of weekly costs of up to $80 and $50 for a four-day supply,” and said formula prices had risen 18% in the past year.
“Bad actors preying on the desperation of parents must not be tolerated,” the lawmakers wrote. “Any instances of price gouging, illegal or predatory market behavior, or other actions that will prevent parents from purchasing this much-needed formula must be thoroughly investigated and stopped.”
HEB, Waco’s dominant grocery chain, released a statement saying, “Many retailers are experiencing infant formula shortages. We have product limits on infant formula and encourage customers to purchase only what they need.
These limits are two items per customer, according to signs posted at HEB locations on North 19th Street and on South Valley Mills Drive. Everyone’s formula aisles had vacancies galore on Friday, when buyer Pricilla Mayoral visited the North Waco store determined to find a formula for a nephew born on Mother’s Day. She had bounced her demands between Walmart stores on Franklin Avenue and Hewitt Drive before finding success at HEB.
Mayoral found what she needed, but no other customers. This formula section of HEB housed 26 small stickers informing shoppers that the store was temporarily short of a particular brand, size, or concentration.
The CVS at New Road and Valley Mills Drive keeps formula milk behind the front register. Sales are limited to three items per person, but such a purchase would have nearly wiped out the limited inventory on display.
Employees near the register agreed that they receive daily calls regarding the availability of formulas, and deliveries may or may not have the product.
The shortage of infant formula has particularly affected mothers of infants who participate in the special federal program of supplementary nutrition for women, infants and children. The program allows low-income women who qualify to receive free or reduced-cost food, infant formula, and health checkups. WIC serves about half of all infants born in the United States, according to the US Department of Agriculture, which runs the program.
Recipients, however, are limited to specific brands, most of which have been affected by the recall of five Similac formulas and the closure of the Michigan plant that made them.
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District works with approximately 6,300 WIC clients in the county on a monthly basis, said Teri Blair, health nutrition program supervisor for the district. The WIC program covers pregnant, lactating or postpartum women as well as children up to 5 years old. Blair estimated that approximately 80% of WIC clients with infants to feed use infant formula.
WIC customers had four approved formulas they could buy, and mothers often need a specific formula to meet their needs, she said. A baby may have a milk or dairy intolerance, food allergies, or other medical conditions that require a certain nutritional component. Babies born prematurely, for example, often need a special formula because their digestive system was not fully developed at birth.
For these mothers, the problem was not a lack of formula in general, but the one they needed for their child.
“Right now, Similac Advance is the hardest formula to find. … If you’ve been to the grocery store, there’s nothing there,” Blair said. “The general population buys anything and everything.”
County and state nutrition workers rushed to help WIC mothers, working to expand formula options to include Walmart and HEB house brands and formulas from manufacturers other than Abbott. WIC customers must have these alternatives added to the cards they use for purchases and will be able to do so until August, Blair said.
The health nutrition supervisor said that mothers who run out of formula should not dilute it, and those using powdered formula should boil water first, mix the powder, and then let it cool before to use it. She also said parents who need a specific formula for their baby should speak to their doctor for advice on options when formula runs out.
“Doctors will know the baby and his condition,” she said.
In recent weeks, the government has imported formulas from Europe and expanded approved formulas for WIC and other programs. Abbott’s closed Michigan plant is also set to reopen next month, and Blair said she hopes formula supply will start to rebound this summer.
Until then, volunteers will continue to help formula users deal with shortages.
People posting on social media or texting photos of stores with formula on the shelves have helped many mothers by minimizing unsuccessful trips to stores without formula, trips that cost money with prices high on gasoline, Blair said.
The Waco Moms In The Know Facebook group, which has some 17,600 followers, has posted numerous photos over the past four months, said Kenya Soto, a Robinson mother and speech therapist who started the group nine years ago and is one of its directors.
Before the pandemic, members often exchanged information about school supplies or the area where daycares had openings for children, or participated in discussions about public schools versus private schools, etc.
COVID-19 and its impact on families accelerated posts and attendees as mothers shared information on childcare and school closures, home safety, issues with school-aged children home, vaccinations and more.
So when moms started reporting formula shortages, others on Waco Moms In The Know stepped in to help. Members posted pictures of store shelves with the formula and when they found it. Others had leftover unused formula or samples received in the mail that they were willing to share. Some shared advice on breastfeeding.
“There’s a pretty big group of moms in central Texas…and it’s a pretty supportive group,” Soto said.
Waco Moms In The Know helped Woodway’s Moldbreakers Fellowship church spread the word when they had a formula to share. Nicole Merkledove serves with her husband John as outreach ministers for the church and posted about a Feb. 26 gift of diapers and formula to the church.
Some 125 people showed up from as far away as Harker Heights. Merkledove, who works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was especially touched that the gift helped military wives in the Fort Hood area.
“We were able to bless moms in the community with diapers, formula, and information,” she said.
Whenever Moldbreakers Church receives formula from Shepherd’s Heart and Robinson pantries, Merkledove spreads the word. She says the church has helped about 70 mothers looking for formula in the past two or three weeks.
“Whenever we are blessed, we put it on the website,” she said. “Where we see a need, we want to help.”
Volunteers also stepped up for the Waco Child Development Center during the shortage. Director Debbie Miller said 10 of the 110 children the center cares for are formula-fed infants, but donations and support have helped keep the center supplied over the past few months. Nearby Talitha Koum Institute, a smaller center that serves at-risk children up to age 5, had a similar experience with mothers and other supporters dropping off extra preparations, executive director Susan Cowley said. .
“People help people. See, this is Texas for you,” Miller said.