Marin County shores up baby formula supplies

The Prime Time Nutrition store in San Rafael on Thursday, July 14, 2022. The market for low-income shoppers is among the sites where the county has supplied extra baby formula. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
The Prime Time Nutrition store in San Rafael on Thursday, July 14, 2022. The market for low-income shoppers is among the sites where the county has supplied extra baby formula. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

After two months of uncertainty, Marin families who use baby formula now have a backup supply available.

“Last week, we just received a significant supply of formula from the state to consider as our backup for any low-income families that can’t find formula in local stores,” Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, said Wednesday. “Now, we’re even more assured that families won’t be going without formula.”

Willis said the extra supply from the state went to the county’s WIC office — for women, infants and children — in San Rafael. WIC serves low-income families by issuing vouchers they can redeem at stores to obtain baby formula.

The WIC office is also distributing the extra formula directly to its clients, said Flory Chambers, a staffer at the agency.

“I sent out a teletext message the beginning of this week that we now have formula,” Chambers said. “I sent it to about 250 of our moms that use formula.”

She said the response was immediate from some WIC clients whose local stores have run out of supply.

“One person called me from Novato and said she was not able to find the baby formula at any stores in her area,” Chambers said. “She said she would just come in to get some, because she didn’t want to keep shopping around.”

Even though some families have been scrambling to find formula in recent weeks, Marin in general has been less impacted by the nationwide shortage than some other, mostly rural, California counties, Willis said.

That lesser impact, Willis said, was due in part to the high percentage of Marin mothers of newborns who have chosen to breastfeed their infants instead of using baby formula.

“About three out of every four babies under 1 year old in Marin are breastfed at least in part,” Willis said. He added that some babies, especially after 6 months, have a mix of breast milk and formula.

“This is true across all income groups, which is a remarkable success in promoting health equity,” Willis said. “Breastfeeding is one of the best strategies, from a public health standpoint, for healthy babies.”

Aside from the health benefits, breast milk is free so it helps economically. In the current crisis, the high rate of breastfeeding across all income groups has helped Marin be more resilient, Willis said.

“In this case, we were more resilient against the market issues, which no one could have anticipated,” he added.

There were 2,353 births in the county between May 2021 and April of this year. That translates to roughly 2,300 babies under 1 year old in Marin, Willis said. Of those, 609, or about 25%, are WIC clients.

“About 300 of our WIC families use formula and 150 rely on formula exclusively,” he said. “This number was small enough that each of these families was able to find formula during this crisis.”

Dr. Lisa Leavitt, a pediatrician at Marin Community Clinics in San Rafael, said the staff has been hustling in recent weeks to help some clients find the appropriate baby formula.

“The vast majority of our moms go home after delivering their baby and are breastfeeding,” she said. “But then, for a whole host of reasons, there are some other families that chose to use baby formula that did struggle.”

One family, for example, needed a special therapeutic baby formula, Nutramigen, because of the infant’s genetic issues, Leavitt said.

“We ended up providing it for her,” Leavitt said. “The clinic scrambled. We sort of begged and borrowed from our pediatrician colleagues in private practice.”

The main baby formula used by WIC in Marin is Enfamil. In addition, Nutramigen, which helps with milk protein allergies, and Gentlease, which aids babies with sensitive stomachs, are also being provided by WIC.

Even though the Marin Community Clinics office in San Rafael does not usually stock baby formula, that changed during the shortage, Leavitt said. Office staffers ended up purchasing supplies at stores themselves so clients could have them when they came in, Leavitt said.

“We would have to send out a few individuals because there was a limit on how many cans one person could purchase at a time,” she added. “We had to get a little creative. It hasn’t been easy.”

Several Marin stores, such as Prime Time Nutrition in San Rafael, only serve WIC clients. They are top priority for receiving supplies of baby formula, according to Chambers. Other groceries that stock the formula and accept WIC vouchers include Marin branches of Safeway, Target, Cardenas, Lucky and Smart & Final, according to WIC.

The county has been checking in with stores regularly since the shortage began to make sure they have enough supply, Willis said.

“This crisis was a wakeup call to all of us in that we had taken for granted the federal supply chain and the vulnerability if we rely on only one manufacturer,” Willis said.

The shortage of infant formula nationwide arose out of supply-chain issues and a recall of infant formula tied to bacterial contamination in the Abbott Nutrition manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, in February.

The federal government has been working on strategies to increase production of formula domestically and also to arrange for new supplies to be imported from other countries.

“Compared with other states, California is faring better, but the shortages are still of concern,” Willis said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a list of resources to help families considering imported formulas to make sure they are safe.

Marin officials said while the new state supply should help ease some of the county’s supply issues, they are still offering resources for any families with questions about baby formula products or brands.

“If you have questions about which formula is acceptable, contact your child’s pediatrician or the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services family health division at 415-473-6889 or on www.marinhhs.org,” said Laine Hendricks, a county spokesperson.

Willis, in a joint statement earlier this month with public health officials from other Bay Area counties, offered a few tips.

“Avoid making your own formula at home, watering down formula to make it last longer, using expired formula, using cow, goat, or plant-based milk for formula, or giving toddler formula to infants,” the statement said. “Doing so can reduce the amount of nutrients a baby receives and can lead to potential serious health complications.”

Willis added that the county has resources available to help mothers who are breastfeeding.

“If you are currently breastfeeding, continue if possible,” he added. “We recognize this option may not be viable for everyone.”

If someone is partially breastfeeding, she might consider reaching out to a lactation care provider — in person or by telehealth — to help ensure she can maintain or increase her milk supply by breastfeeding more, he added.

Families using baby formula should check with the child’s doctor before substituting any formula brands.

“For most babies, if their regular brand of formula is not currently available, it is OK to substitute with a similar version,” Willis said.

If the baby requires a special formula, Willis advises parents to consult with the child’s pediatrician before making any substitutions.

“Babies need the right balance of nutrients — not too much or too little of anything — to grow and be healthy,” he said. “It is important for a baby’s health for parents to use products that meet federal standards to ensure the formula is safe and free of harmful bacteria.”

Cans of baby formula are stocked at the WIC office in the Marin Health and Wellness Campus in San Rafael on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Cans of baby formula are stocked at the WIC office in the Marin Health and Wellness Campus in San Rafael on Thursday, July 14, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)