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When the shelves at Walmart were empty, Angela Johnson would drive to Cub. Then Target. Then a different Target.
“Once I went to five different stores and none of them had the brand,” said Angela Johnson, a 31-year-old personal care assistant from Brooklyn Center and mother to an 8-month-old and three older children.
Last winter, media coverage and social posts focused attention on a national formula shortage, sparked in part by the February shutdown of a Michigan production facility. But while the news cycle moved on, for many new parents, the formula shortage never stopped. And 10 months later, some say finding nourishment for babies has become a second job.
Infant formula is the only option for families who don’t breastfeed. In lieu of breastmilk, the mixture provides the complex nutrition necessary for a baby’s development.
Black and Hispanic families use more formula than white families, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Families spend between $1,200 and $1,500 on formula during the baby’s first year of life, according to the United States’ Office of the Surgeon General. For low-income families on food assistance programs, navigating the ongoing formula shortage comes with extra hurdles. Parents can’t use some government benefits to buy formula online and they may have fewer transportation options to shop in person.
There is one bright spot, however: Since the initial shortage, parents across Minnesota have banded together via social media groups to help each other.
After the day Johnson traveled to five different stores on a formula hunt and came home empty-handed, she asked a friend if she had any extra cans. Not only did the friend offer her formula from her own supply, she told her about a local Facebook group, Formula Finder–Minnesota that connects families with formula.
“It was really hard and frustrating, but it’s nice to have other women and mothers to depend on, and that made it very, very relieving at the same time,” Johnson said.
Why is there a shortage?
The shortage began in February, when the country’s largest formula manufacturer, Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, Michigan, recalled its product and stopped production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned customers not to use formula made at the facility after babies who had consumed it contracted a bacterial illness. The infection, called Cronobacter, can cause severe illness and death. None of the cases were conclusively linked with the factory, but testing found the bacteria in the formula made there.
Formula quickly became hard to find. The Michigan plant manufactured 10 percent of the nation’s supply of formula. Although the plant is back up and running, the shortage has lasted longer than expected. A third of formula-feeding parents still were having trouble finding formula in mid-November, according to a U.S. Census data survey. National out-of-stock rates were about 13 percent in mid-November. Supply chain issues and labor shortages have contributed to the continued shortage.
“So many times, we thought it’s going to get better, and then two weeks later it would seem that actually, it’s getting worse,” said Jessica Moore, a 29-year-old mother of an 8-month-old and 3-year-old, who lives in Forest Lake.
For parents who aren’t breastfeeding, formula is the only acceptable option to feed babies who are less than a year old, said pediatrician Dr. Julia Joseph-Di Caprio, founder of Leap Pediatric and Adolescent Care in St. Paul.
“We want the baby to get the full nutrition from breastfeeding or formula, and there’s really no substitute,” she said. “Using whole milk before a year of age, or watering down formula, puts children at risk.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, citing health benefits that include everything from less diarrhea to a lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome. But 75 percent of babies in the U.S. are fed formula by six months. More Black and Hispanic parents rely on formula than white parents: 80 percent of Black households and 77 percent of Hispanic households use formula by the time children are six months old.
“Breastfeeding is really the best for babies, and it oftentimes is the best for families,” Joseph-Di Caprio said. “But it’s a process, and some parents don’t have adequate supply, or have to go back to work pretty quickly. And that’s why formula is great, because it allows families to meet the challenges of having a newborn.”
Legally, women have the right to breastfeed or pump at the workplace (that is, to use a device that collects milk to refrigerate and give to babies later). But that’s often not the reality in low-paying jobs, Joseph-Di Caprio said.
She added, “If you’re a family who has chosen formula and the baby is now six months old and there’s a formula shortage, you’re not going back to breastfeeding.”
Tosha and Matt Anderson’s son was three months old last May when a friend alerted her to the formula shortage.
“I pulled out my Target app and sure enough, my son’s very basic formula was out of stock in every metro Target,” she said. “So I sent my husband to go find some immediately, since at that time, we only had about two weeks’ supply left.”
When Matt returned to their home in Dayton after several hours, and reported on all the empty shelves, the couple decided to start a group.
Fortunately, the couple already knew how to locate scarce products via Facebook groups: The previous summer, Matt had used the social media app to chase down Pokemon cards. Within weeks, the Formula Finder–Minnesota group grew to almost 6,000 members.
The Andersons were on parental leave at the time and approached the project like a full-time job. Many list members still spend a few hours a day looking for formula in stores and online, uploading pictures of thinly stocked shelves at local stores, and making connections.
Ran out of formula and experiencing an emergency?
Is it safe to water down formula? Can I make my own formula?
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a straightforward FAQ about what parents can do if they don’t have formula and need to feed a baby.
On most days on the Facebook page, you can find time-stamped pictures of store shelves across the metro, showcasing which brands are in stock. People also post offers to mail each other coupons. Administrators keep track of urgent needs separately.
“There has been a steady flow of families requesting our help as they were down to their last can,” Anderson said. Some children can’t digest the most common brands and need special products. “I have personally met families in the middle of the night with sick babies who won’t keep other formulas down,” she said.
Volunteer Naomi Held, of Coon Rapids, spends hours every day searching for formula and then notifying others. It’s fulfilling work, she says, because parents are so grateful.
“I have learned that Minnesotans truly know how to support one another when push comes to shove,” Anderson agreed.
Extra challenges for low-income households
As many new parents can attest, feeding an infant can cause a lot of anxiety—even when food is plentiful. Parents affected by the shortage said they sometimes felt crushed by the strain.
“It’s just been frustrating and I’ve been getting overwhelmed to figure out ways to get the baby the only food they can eat,” said Johnson, the mother from Brooklyn Center.
Moore said she second-guessed her decision to feed formula to her child, who is sensitive and difficult-to-breastfeed.
“I was still pumping, but I wasn’t making enough for a full day’s worth,” she said. She struggled with the balance of putting too much pressure on herself, while ensuring her baby got the nutrition he needed.
At the same time, she and her husband were juggling the finances of formula feeding during a shortage. “We had gotten all these sample cans we couldn’t use, and also coupons for Similac and Enfamil”–two common brands of formula. “But we couldn’t use them for the sensitive kind because we couldn’t find it,” she said.
For low-income families using food assistance programs, the shortage poses extra barriers. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides funding for some low-income pregnant women and new mothers and children up to age 5. The Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) provides food funding for low-income families more generally with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.
Both government programs can be used to pay for formula, but different rules for each can make the process cumbersome.
“Say you’re on WIC and you need Nutramigen,” Held explained, referring to a special, hypoallergenic formula. “You can’t find it in the store. And if someone else is selling it on Facebook you can’t afford to buy it from them.”
Other rules complicate the marketplace: In Minnesota, you cannot use WIC to buy formula online. During the shortage, some brick-and-mortar stores have placed new restrictions on how much formula consumers can purchase, in an attempt to prevent hoarding. In practice, that can mean parents must drive to several stores, a challenge for people without reliable transportation.
WIC also restricts the size of the canister you can buy. When Johnson eventually found the type of formula she was looking for, she couldn’t use WIC to pay for the bigger size the store had in stock.
“It kinda was stressful financially because a can of milk isn’t cheap: 17.7 oz is almost $20,” Johnson said.
If Johnson wanted to use EBT, that left her less money to spend on general groceries for the family. “So it cut in with our groceries a little bit,” she said “It didn’t get to the point where I couldn’t support the household, but it still cut in.”
Parents in rural Minnesota also have a harder time, since products usually arrive in the Twin Cities first.
“If you live in Ely, Minnesota, and you’re on WIC, you’re screwed, unfortunately,” said Naomi Held, the Formula Finder volunteer.
In those cases, parents rely even more on friends and the connections from the Facebook group. While the match-making team is based in the metro, volunteers will often deliver formula if they’re driving up north, Held said.
In a pinch, when parents “can’t find what they’re looking for, they grab the closest available alternative and pray to God it doesn’t mess the baby’s tummy up,” Held said. “But a lot of times it does.”
No one knows when stores will be fully replenished. After babies reach their first birthday, they can transition fully to regular milk and solid food. At that point—four months away—Johnson and Moore say they’ll be able to relax. But until then, these parents remain on the hunt for formula.
TIPS FROM FORMULA FINDERS
If you find a website that says the formula you want is in stock at a certain store, call first, Held advises. “It’s awful to drive there and not have it.”
Check the Minnesota WIC website for lists of formulas that parents can use when they can’t find their preferred type, available in English, Spanish and Somali.
Sign up for Formula Finder–Minnesota and apps such as FindMyBabyFormula and apps for stores that sell formula such as Target and Walmart, suggests Kristen Christenson, a Formula Finder volunteer.
Friends can help: You can send trusted friends and family members to search shelves for you with your WIC card and 4-digit PIN.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises checking smaller shops and drug stores, which may have formula on the shelves when bigger stores are sold out.