‘We’re flying through formula’: Nationwide shortage hurts rural families on WIC

CANNON FALLS, Minn. — Two months after giving birth, Jennifer Magee noticed a change in her baby’s feeding routine that scared her: She was starting to drink more formula, almost every hour.

Increased appetite is normal for growing infants, including Magee’s daughter, Aubrey. But amid the national formula shortage, Magee, 25, had only one container left, barely enough to last three days.

“We’re flying through formula,” Magee said as the shortage worsened in May. “I’m afraid that pretty soon, if we don’t stock up, we’re not going to have it for her.”

Finding more wouldn’t be a straightforward task.

Magee faced the same strain many parents experienced during the past few months as they scrambled to find formula. But she felt added stress because she relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC — a federally funded initiative meant to help low-income women buy food, including baby formula.

Her daughter was born in March, long after pandemic-related supply chain issues began to affect formula availability, and just weeks after baby food manufacturer Abbott Nutrition shut down production at its Michigan factory and recalled multiple formulas, further disrupting supply. In May, FDA officials projected the shortage would persist until late July.

For Magee and other parents who live near state borders, especially those in rural communities with limited and distant shopping options, WIC’s limitations further exacerbate the shortage.

A resident of Bay City, Wisconsin, Magee must shop at a store that is authorized by her state to accept WIC benefits. Unlike people who receive money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, another support for low-income families, WIC recipients can’t use their benefits across state lines, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bay City is a village of about 400 on the western edge of Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota, which has a population of about 16,500. Bay City has no WIC-approved grocery stores. Red Wing — less than 10 miles west — has three WIC-approved stores, but Magee can’t use her Wisconsin benefits at them.

Instead, she drives nearly 50 miles to a WIC-approved Walmart Supercenter in Menomonie, Wisconsin, in search of the hypoallergenic formula her daughter needs.

While the formula shortage is not just affecting WIC families, it is “magnifying disparities that low-income families have faced for years,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, the nonprofit advocacy organization that represents WIC programs.

Typically, WIC recipients have a designated formula they can purchase with their benefits as part of what the program calls a “food package.” After the Abbott Nutrition recall, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a list of substitutions for families whose designated formula was among those recalled.

Nutramigen, the formula Magee used to soothe her daughter’s milk sensitivity, was not recalled, but that hasn’t made it any easier to find since the shortage led to a nationwide scramble for other brands. Each time Magee drove to Menomonie for Nutramigen, she was making a “wild guess” she might find some.

She didn’t.

In May, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services suggested families navigating the shortage check smaller grocery stores and drugstores and search store websites before going in person. Yet some smaller stores don’t accept WIC, and what’s online may not reflect what’s on the shelf. Like most states, Wisconsin does not allow WIC families to shop online with their benefits.

“Sometimes that’s a barrier because of the cost of transportation,” said Brittany Mora, the WIC director for Pierce County, where Magee lives, as she reflected on the amount of travel families have taken on in search of formula — especially as gas prices have soared.

It would take a 65-mile round trip for Magee to check the four WIC-approved stores in her county.

Similar challenges have emerged for women receiving WIC in Minnesota. The state’s WIC director, Kate Franken, said the families that come to her program for support sometimes don’t have a car.

Though Minnesota, like Wisconsin, now offers WIC recipients imported formulas to increase their options, the additions don’t help all families equally because they are standard milk-based formulas and can’t be consumed by babies with some sensitivities, Franken said.

Those are babies like Magee’s daughter.

When Magee realized she couldn’t depend on her WIC benefits to immediately access hypoallergenic formula, she turned to family for help.

On May 23, Magee’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, Geralyn Laurie, turned to Facebook, asking for help finding formula for her granddaughter. She offered to pay for cans and shipping.

Within weeks, 26 cans of hypoallergenic formula had made their way to the end of the farmland-bordered gravel road leading to Laurie’s home in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, about 30 miles west of Bay City.

“Everyone, I think, wants to help, and several people were just like, ‘I’m on it,'” she said.

By the time her granddaughter was 3 months old, Laurie had spent more than $455 on formula.

Magee has yet to be able to use her WIC benefits to feed her daughter.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.