As infant formula stock began disappearing from local stores, Kimberly resident Nicole Leitermann started phoning friends and family in Georgia, California and other parts of Wisconsin.
What they found reflected what she was seeing: The shelves were empty.
“When everybody in those three different states said that Costco didn’t (have any), I was worried,” said Leitermann, who operates Impressions Family Child Care from her home.
One of the children in her care is an 8-month-old. On average, children spend 34 hours a week in regulated care, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
That translates to many bottles of formula every week.
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Eventually, she resorted to buying a can from the infant’s parents, who currently have a two-month supply.
To participate in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, which reimburses regulated family and group child care providers for feeding children healthy meals, Leitermann must offer an iron-fortified formula for children under 1 year old.
However, parents may choose not to accept the formula their child care provider offers, and instead send their infant with a formula of their choice or breast milk. Because the 8-month-old’s parents accepted the formula Leitermann offers, Leitermann both feeds and supplies the formula the infant consumes while in her care.
Until the shelves went bare, Leitermann was venturing to Costco every three weeks to buy a large canister of Kirkland Signature ProCare baby formula, and continued to for a few months after the formula shortage made national news.
“You would hear about the formula shortage, but I would go to Costco and there would be a pallet of formula,” Leitermann said, adding she thought at first that she might escape the shortage. “Sometime in April, I went and there were three cans on the pallet. That was the first time I went, ‘Oh, I think (the shortage) is around here.’ That was the first time it hit me.”
By May, there was no ProCare formula in sight. Leitermann said the spot that once was packed with formula was replaced with unrelated merchandise. That’s when she began encouraging the infant to try more fruits, vegetables and baby cereal so that formula was not the child’s sole food source. That’s also when she reached out to friends and family.
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Supply chain issues were already limiting the availability of formula when Abbott Nutrition shut down the nation’s largest formula manufacturing plant in February and recalled formula as the FDA investigated the source of a bacterial infection in several children that consumed its formula.
The plant recently reopened — then was shut again after storms hit, though Abbott says it has enough supply until the plant can reopen in several weeks. Supplies remain tight and other licensed child care providers that offer formula as CACFP participants are continuing to turn to their social circles — and sometimes a little outside of them — for help.
Danielle Englebert, chief operating officer for YMCA Fox Cities, said this is how the two full-time child care centers that offer Enfamil formula, which she said became scarce when the shortage began, are surviving the storm.
“When we were starting to feel the pinch, we put a notice out to all of our staff (across YMCA Fox Valley). That was 700 staff,” Englebert said, explaining this ensured if a local store had formula, the YMCA would know about it. “Because of that wide network, we really haven’t felt that as much as smaller providers probably have.”
As stores are limiting the amount of formula per customer, the YMCA can send multiple employees to a store, ensuring there is enough supply for all of their infants.
At Kid’s Kingdom, which does not participate in CACFP, meaning parents and guardians are required to send formula or breastmilk with their children, its community is doing what it can to support each other.
Cheyenne Hebel, a lead teacher in Kid’s Kingdom’s infant room, said parents bring in extra formula as they find it at stores. From there, Kid’s Kingdom sets it out for families to take as needed. Hebel said the staff is also browsing stores and letting parents know if they find the formula their infant needs, just as YMCA Fox Cities staff is doing.
Should she need to, Hebel said she is prepared to buy formula herself.
“It’s a lot of communication and keeping everybody on the same page,” Hebel said.
For now, many parents and their child care providers are switching their infants’ formula to reflect what they are able to find.
This is the case for the 8-month-old who attends Leitermann’s Impressions Family Child Care center. The baby’s mother was able to get a different formula brand from Target by having the store alert her when it came in stock.
Some parents are asking pediatricians about other options.
“Some parents are talking to doctors about if whole milk is an option before the age of one,” Hebel said.
But as all three providers acknowledge, switching is not an option for some families whose children face specific dietary challenges — making it all the more important to look out for their formula coming back in stock.
“Those are the ones that are most scarce, so as you’ll see on the news, now that the (Abbott plant) is back up and running, they’re first trying to get out the specialty stuff,” Englebert said.
Recent shipments of formula into the country do not yet seem to have translated into more product on local store shelves, Hebel said.
Yet, Leitermann said seeing the mother of her 8-month-old client was recently able to find some formula – although it was not the child’s preferred brand – gave her a sliver of hope.
“Seeing the parent was able to order a different kind online from Target made me say, ‘That’s a good sign,’” she said.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member. She is based at the Post Crescent in Appleton. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 920-993-7108.