The United States is experiencing a disastrous shortage of baby formula because of supply chain disruptions and a safety recall of several Abbott Nutrition brands.
The shortage is evident in Hyde Park, where formula supplies on pharmacy shelves are meager and signs are limiting the number of cans people can buy.
“I have had mothers and other partner organizations we work with reaching out to see if we have formula, because they have had trouble acquiring some of the formulas that mothers typically use,” said Jamie Taratoot, who runs the nonprofit EveryMom Chicago in the neighborhood.
She’s been reaching out through Hyde Park’s various parenting groups to see if people have any extra cans or samples to donate.
Formula companies are good at identifying new parents and typically send samples to them, Taratoot said: “No matter whether you breastfeed them or not, you end up with cans of free formula, which is its own issue. So a lot of families end up having free formula around. You hold onto it in case you need it.”
Among the Hyde Parkers who donated is Emily Kleenan. Samples came in the mail when she had her second baby six weeks ago, just like they did when she had her first.
The samples, two little cans, sat on her couch before news spread about the shortage. As Kleenan began to read social media posts about it, she remembered she had them. She decided to donate them to EveryMom, after ensuring that they weren’t the recalled brands, because nursing is going well with her infant and she figures she doesn’t need a backup plan.
“I was wondering if they were going to be claimed really quickly or if there was going to be a lot of interest,” she said. “I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t more, but I think that’s probably a good thing. Hopefully that means that a lot of people on the (Hyde Park parenting social media) group aren’t feeling really pinched.”
Taratoot said four or five families whom she works with have asked her for formula. EveryMom, her nonprofit, provides to-go kits with goods for infants and new parents predominantly on the South and West sides.
Debbie Frisch runs the hellobaby nonprofit, a “freestanding, free-of-charge, drop-in play space” at 600 E. 61st St. “Caregiver and child come together, kids birth through 3,” she said. “That’s the biggest time of brain growth and the biggest social service gap. What we’re really doing is addressing play deserts in Chicago.” The nonprofit has a room full of toys, an art circle, a climbing slide structure and daily programming donated by citywide organizations.
They also provide diapers and began providing gently used clothing, wipes, cleaning supplies, paper supplies and personal hygiene products during the pandemic. Even before the formula shortage, Frisch said more and more parents she served were running out of formula at the end of the month, before their benefits renewed, and they began accepting formula donations, too.
Since the shortage began, hellobaby has escalated its efforts to get formula to parents in conjunction with EveryMom. (The two have cooperated before, with EveryMom using hellobaby as a baby kit distribution site and hellobaby referring clients to EveryMom.)
That said, Frisch said hellobaby has only taken in and distributed a case of formula so far. “The problem is there’s so many types of formula,” she said. “It’s very need-specific.” But mothers in need have come in, asking if they can give their babies sugar water or dairy milk.
“You’re dealing with the most vulnerable among us, and is breast best? Yeah, sure. Probably. But first of all, that ship has sailed: if you stop breastfeeding, you can’t just start,” Frisch said. “And it doesn’t work for some women. If you’re hanging by a thread and you have three other kids at home, breastfeeding is exhausting. And you do what you can, what’s best for your family.”
David Raymond, walking his 4-month-old son home from a visit to the pediatrician up Woodlawn Avenue, said his family has a two-month supply of formula. “When we run out, we’re concerned with what to do next,” he said.
What they’re not doing is panic-buying. The doctor gave Raymond advice about giving his son formula he may not be used to; he luckily hasn’t shown any sensitivity to different brands. They are feeding him Enfamil now, instead of an Abbott brand that had been recalled.
The Associated Press reports that the Food and Drug Administration is working with Abbott to fix its safety issues and restart production — the agency is also encouraging the importation of safe formula (nearly all formula for American babies is made domestically) — but experts caution the supply disruptions will nonetheless last several months because of industrywide issues.
While there have been documented industrial safety violations at Abbott, the AP reports that food safety advocates note that neither the FDA nor the company know what specifically caused contamination of some of the formula that led to recalls.
“If I was going to get mad at the government for something like this, there’s probably a whole host of other things I should start with,” Raymond said. “I’m obviously a bit concerned. If it proceeds and becomes a major issue long-term, I’ll take more time to think about who I need to be angry at instead of just thinking about taking care of my family and doing what’s right for my son.”
“It’s certainly surprising. It’s not something you think about,” he said. “There’s a whole host of things you think about when you’re a young family, especially with your first child, and (formula) is one you just kind of take for granted. You just assume it’s going to be on the shelves. But as a family that’s struggled with feeding at times, we’ve become reliant on it. So to all of the sudden have to think a little bit more strategically about how to get it has changed our perspective quite a bit.”
Kleenan said she has been fortunate with both her children: no problems nursing and grateful about it, because she knows families who have had to use or supplement with formula.
“I can’t imagine not knowing how I’m going to feed my baby,” she said. “Just thinking about how there is not an alternative. If you’re food-insecure as an adult, that’s already just awful, but there are … possible avenues. There aren’t that many, but there are way more than for babies. If you have a baby and your baby is having formula, and there’s no formula, then what do you do?”