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Baby formula shortage deals major blow to low-income Vermonters

Empty shelves of baby formula at a grocery store
Mikaela Lefrak
The Hannaford grocery store in Burlington was recently sold out of most baby formula brands.

Next time you’re in a grocery store or pharmacy, take a look at the infant formula section. Chances are, the shelves will be bare.

A nationwide baby formula shortage has parents and caregivers in Vermont struggling to find enough formula to feed their children.

In February, the formula manufacturer Abbott issued a massive recallafter four babies contracted bacterial infections stemming from formula manufactured in Abbott's Michigan plant. Two of the babies died. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also temporarily shut down the Michigan factory.

The ensuing formula shortage has been compounded by broader supply chain issues.

"It’s probably one of the most emotionally challenging situations for a young mom to be in, a parent to be in," says Claire Kendall, the co-director of the Family Center of Washington County, which supports families in central Vermont. Kendall says families who are struggling financially have been hit the hardest.

"It’s probably one of the most emotionally challenging situations for a young mom to be in, a parent to be in."
Claire Kendall, Family Center of Washington County

High gas prices have compounded the problem, particularly in rural states like Vermont. Families often have to drive long distances from store to store to find formula — and with gas prices about $4.50 a gallon, the cost of transportation can take up an increasingly large part of a family's budget.

Kendall brings up one of her center's clients, a mother of twins who both exclusively drink formula. The mother has been driving to stores around the state to find formula.

Other parents Kendall works with have been driving to milk banks in upstate New York to seek out donated breast milk.

Many stores have placed limits on the number of formula cans that can be purchased at a time, to prevent customers from stockpiling. However, for a parent of multiples, two cans of formula might only last a few days.

"Inflation and the gas prices are the double whammies," Kendall said. "So if it was hard before, it’s really hard now."

Food assistance programs try to find solutions

Many low-income families in Vermont rely on a federal government program called WIC to buy formula. Nationwide, about half of the infant formula in the US is purchased with federal WIC benefits.

But WIC recipients can't simply walk into a store and buy any formula on the shelf. Due to federal regulations, there are only a handful of approved brands and can sizes they can buy.

Karen Flynn, the director of Vermont’s WIC program, says the state has been able to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the approved listof brands and can sizes to nearly 40 over the last three months.

"I know there are families that are incredibly stressed, because when that’s the main nutrition source for your infant, you don’t have anything else to go to," she says.

Flynn and her colleagues have also been urging parents who are able to breastfeed to make that choice, by helping them get breast pumps and connecting them to lactation consultations. It seems to be working — the number of breastfeeding moms "is starting to tick up," Flynn says.

More from VPR: Vermont's First Milk Bank Offers Nutritional Choice For New Parents

But breastfeeding isn’t possible for everyone. Some people’s bodies don’t produce enough milk to feed an infant. Others are on medication and are advised not to breastfeed. Some babies have severe allergies and need specific formula. And parents who work outside the home might struggle to pump milk at work, leading to a drop in supply.

In short, breastfeeding can be really complicated.

Manufacturers try to ramp up production

Manufacturers around the country and in Vermont are trying to ramp up production. Vermont's sole formula manufacturing plant is in the town of Georgia. Owned by Perrigo, it makes formula that is then repackaged under store brands.

“The company is doing everything possible to provide as much infant formula to its retail partners during this challenging time," Perrigo said in a statement to VPR. "We are running all the formula we possibly can, but our facilities are at full capacity."

Perrigo has been able to increase its output by 15% in recent months, but most formula factories aren't built to ramp up production.

"They can’t just make twice as much," explains Flynn. "There are constraints. There’s a global impact, and it’s really hard to see far enough in the future to know when this is all going to be rectified, or come to an end."

In recent days, the Biden Administration announced additional steps for addressing the crisis, including importing more formula from abroad.

How to help

Karen Flynn with WIC asks that Vermonters try to avoid buying out thespecific types of formula that WIC recipients are able to purchase, and avoid stockpiling formula of any kind.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has developed a list of suggestions for parents and caregivers seeking formula. They advise against watering down formula or attempting to make formula at home. They also urge parents to reach out to their pediatrician with any specific concerns about child nutrition.

Claire Kendall with the Family Center of Washington County suggests donating frozen breast milk to milk banks, unopened and unexpired containers of formula to food shelves, or money to programs in your area that support low-income families.

Last but not least, she says, try to avoid judging others for how they feed their children.

"All children deserve to be adequately fed," Kendall says. "We need to lift up all families."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with Mikaela Lefrak on Twitter @MikaelaLefrak.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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