Montana parents and nonprofits are mobilizing to help ease the baby formula shortage
Last Thursday, Autumn Moran drove from Arlee to Missoula on a mission: She was hoping to buy baby formula for her 9-month-old son, Theodore. She went to a Walmart to see what she could find.
“As I was in there, I did see a couple parents — moms — walk by and kind of let out a sigh of, ‘Oh, crap,’ or, ‘Not again.’ That kind of thing," Moran said. "It's scary. It's hard to watch.”
For Moran, like so many other parents in Montana, finding formula used to be as routine as filling the pantry. Now, it’s a game of chance.
“I got what I needed, thankfully. But the shelves were very empty."
Baby formula availability, already reduced by pandemic-related shutdowns and supply chain disruptions, was made worse earlier this year when major formula manufacturer Abbott Laboratories closed a Michigan factory. The company recalled many of its products after some parents complained of possible bacterial infection in their babies.
Over the last few months, Moran and her husband have watched Theodore reach milestone after milestone. Then, during a mid-April shopping trip in Missoula, Moran went from store to store, finding nothing but empty shelves.
“I was getting so frustrated. I was scared," she said. "And I immediately called my husband and I was like, ‘I can't find anything anywhere.’ And I'm crying at this point, like, freaking out.”
Moran says her mother-in-law eventually found a pre-mixed formula, but the fear of being unable to feed her son stuck with her. Moran isn’t the only mom feeling the formula squeeze.
Dr. Shaina Rogers has helped Missoula families care for their babies for a year-and-a -alf at Providence Pediatrics.
“I'd say that the calls recently have increased tenfold," Rogers said. "So this is a big change in what we're seeing from patients and their families and their level of concern.”
Rogers advises parents with questions or concerns about feeding their babies to call a pediatrician. She urges moms not to dilute their formula with water or attempt any recipes found on social media.
Rogers says for women who don’t breastfeed, formula is still parents’ safest option, and suggests looking for it at smaller stores like CVS, or at local food banks.
The state Department of Public Health and Human Services communications head Jon Ebelt said in an emailed statement that the department is tracking the shortage through its Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). A single-person household must make less than $24,000 a year to qualify for the program.
Ebelt said formula stock across Montana continues to fluctuate, though the state WIC office is maintaining a small supply and can order special formulas to area WIC offices.
Dr. Rogers says formula provides babies with crucial nutrients needed for healthy growth. 35% of infants in 2018 were fed formula before six months of age, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many infants require special products due to allergies or other conditions. These products were already less common than regular formula before the shortage began.
Moran says she had to transition Theodore from his sensitive mix to a formula she saw stocked on shelves more often.
“I can't imagine other moms that aren't able to do that,” she said.
One local nonprofit has helped bridge the gap for moms facing just that issue. Mother’s Milk Bank of Montana is the region’s only breast milk bank, serving hospitals from Idaho to the Dakotas and Wyoming. The pasteurization process is an expensive one, and, combined with labor and testing expenses, leaves breastmilk at the bank priced at $4.50 per ounce.
“We've always tried our best with our limited resources to provide where we can when paying full price is not an option,” said Jessica Welborn, an executive director at the bank.
Welborn says the bank primarily serves newborns in hospitals. As the formula shortage arrived in Montana, though, she says she’s been getting more calls from worried parents looking for solutions.
Welborn also says they’ve been inundated with phone calls and emails from moms looking to donate their extra milk supply.
Welborn adds that the milk bank has a limited ability to scholarship breastmilk to families in need, and is prioritizing help for medically fragile babies. She encourages interested recipients and donors to call the bank for more information.
Beyond nonprofit milk banks, parents looking for ways to feed their kids have come together over social media.
Carlen Copeland lives in Missoula with her parents and husband and has been caring for her 11-week-old son who also happens to be named Theodore. Copeland says she knows how difficult breastfeeding can be. She recently connected with Mother’s Milk Bank of Montana to learn about becoming a donor.
“I just thought if there are a couple bags people need here and there while they're driving to who-knows-where to find formula, I could at least keep their baby from getting too hungry,” Copeland said.
There is some hope at the federal level that the shortage could lessen sooner rather than later. Robert Califf, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, said that the closed Michigan plant should be producing formula again within two weeks. President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to use military resources to ship approved baby formula to the U.S. from overseas.
For now, Moran says that although she’s found enough formula to last until Theodore can get by on solid foods, she worries for her fellow moms.