Baby formula shortages continue to frustrate Minnesota parents

Ten months after a national infant formula shortage emerged, many Minnesota parents say that finding nourishment for their babies remains a second job for them.

“Once I went to five different stores and none of them had the brand,” said Angela Johnson of Brooklyn Center, a 31-year-old personal care assistant and mother to an 8-month-old and three older children.

But since the initial shortage, parents across the state have banded together via social media groups to help each other. After Johnson came home empty-handed from her formula hunt, a friend told her about Formula Finder–Minnesota, a local Facebook group that connects families with formula.

“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.

And parents in rural Minnesota have a harder time finding formula than those in the metro area, since products usually arrive in the Twin Cities first. In those cases, parents rely even more on the connections from the Facebook group. While the matchmaking team is based in the metro area, volunteers will often deliver formula if they’re driving Up North.

Infant formula is the only option for babies who aren’t breastfed, providing the complex nutrition necessary for development. Families spend between $1,200 and $1,500 on formula during the baby’s first year of life, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

“We want the baby to get the full nutrition from breastfeeding or formula, and there’s really no substitute,” said Dr. Julia Joseph-Di Caprio, founder of Leap Pediatric and Adolescent Care in St. Paul. “Using whole milk before a year of age, or watering down formula, puts children at risk.”

About 75% of babies in the U.S. are fed formula by 6 months. More Black and Hispanic parents rely on formula than white parents, 80% of Black households and 77% of Hispanic households.

The shortage began in February, when the country’s largest formula manufacturer, Abbott Nutrition in Sturgis, Mich., recalled its product and stopped production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned customers not to use formula made at the plant after babies contracted cronobacter, a bacterial infection that can cause severe illness and death.

The Michigan plant manufactured 10% of the nation’s supply of formula, which quickly became hard to find. The plant is back up and running but the shortage has lasted longer than expected, owing in part to supply-chain issues and labor shortages. A third of formula-feeding parents were still having trouble finding formula in mid-November, according to a U.S. census survey.

“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 of Forest Lake, a 29-year-old mother of an 8-month-old and 3-year-old.

Tosha and Matt Anderson’s son was 3 months old last May when a friend alerted Tosha to the shortage. When Matt failed to find any formula on store shelves, the Dayton couple launched Formula Finder-Minnesota. Within weeks, the group had grown to almost 6,000 members.

Many list members spend a few hours daily looking for formula in stores and online, uploading pictures of thinly stocked shelves at local stores. People post offers to mail each other coupons, and 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,” Tosha Anderson said.

Moore said she second-guessed her decision to feed formula to her child, who is sensitive and difficult to breastfeed. At the same time, she and her husband were juggling the finances of formula feeding during a shortage. They had coupons for a couple common brands they could use, but they couldn’t find them.

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 some may have fewer transportation options to shop in person.

Both WIC, which provides nutritional help for women, infant and children, and SNAP — better known as food stamps — can be used to pay for formula. But different rules for each can make the process cumbersome, and in Minnesota you can’t use WIC to buy formula online.

“Say you’re on WIC and you need Nutramigen,” said volunteer Naomi Held of Coon Rapids, referring to a 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.”

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. And if she wanted to use food stamps, that left her less money to spend on general groceries for the family.

After babies reach their 1st birthday, they can transition fully to regular milk and solid food. At that point, Johnson and Moore say they’ll be able to relax. But until then, they remain on the hunt for formula.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for its free newsletter to receive stories in your inbox.