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Infant formula shortage hits Central Illinois

Baby formula is offered for sale at a big-box store on Jan. 13 in Chicago. Baby formula has been in short supply in many stores around the U.S. for several months.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Baby formula has been in short supply in many stores around the U.S. for several months.


In the eight years that Prairieland Birth and Family owner and Bloomington mom Veronica Ash has been working alongside families with new babies as a postpartum doula, she's helped them navigate all of the ups and downs that come with early parenthood.

Except for how to navigate a shortage of infant formula. That's a new one.

"I was just at Target the other day and the shelves were bare," she said. "While I'm in Bloomington or if I'm traveling to Champaign, I will go out of my way (for my clients) to look at different stores to see if they have any and, unfortunately, most of the time we haven't been able to find any."

There's been a shortage of infant formula going on for some time, but people based in Central Illinois that spoke with WGLT said it hadn't hit hard until the past three-to-four weeks.

"We hadn't seen too much of a shortage up until recently — maybe the end of April or May," said McLean County Health Department Women Infant and Children (WIC) program coordinator Mary Colby. Then people started seeing "shortages, locally, for powdered formulas, so we are having (WIC) participants call, reporting that they're not able to find some of their products on the shelves ... within the last two-to-three weeks."

Why it's happening

Part of the reason the formula supply is so low is because, in February, a Chicago-based company called Abbott Nutrition issued a recall of some of its baby formula products. The voluntary recall included certain batches of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formula products.

According to Politico, a formula manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, had been the subject of a federal Food and Drug Administration investigation due to complaints about poor food safety standards.

The voluntary recall of formula occurred in February — months after one infant was sickened with a bacterial infection after consuming formula made at that plant; in total, five infants were hospitalized between Sept. 2021 and Jan. 2022. Two of those children died.

Shortages of formula have been on the rise since.

During the first week of May, the average out-of-stock rate for baby formula at retailers across the country was 43%, according to data from the firm Datasembly, which collected information from more than 11,000 sellers.

In late April, the rate was even higher in some states, with an out-of-stock rate over 50% in Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee.

"This issue has been compounded by supply chain challenges, product recalls and historic inflation," Datasembly CEO Ben Reich said in a statement.

The severity of the issue has been such that it's prompted action from the Biden Administration, according to a Thursday statement from White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

"These steps include cutting red tape to get more infant formula to store shelves quicker by urging states to provide consumers flexibility on the types of formula they can buy with WIC dollars; calling on the (Federal Trade Commission) and state attorneys general to crack down on any price gouging or unfair market practices related to sales of infant formula, like third-party sellers reselling formula at steep prices; and increasing the supply of formula through increased exports — imports," Psaki said.

In a recent fact sheet put out by the White House, Biden administration officials noted that "more infant formula has been produced in the last four weeks than in the four weeks preceding the recall — despite one of the largest infant formula production facilities in the U.S. being offline."

Abbott has said that whenever the FDA approves its plan to reopen its Sturgis facility, some of its formula products would be produced within two weeks and back on the shelves for consumers within six-to-eight weeks.

Bursting Bloomington's bubble

But until those products are actually back on the shelves, families with infants needing formula will continue to navigate a situation that has an almost dystopian feel.

"Bloomington tends to be this little bubble most of the time — or it feels like we're in a little, safe bubble, but to see (the shortage) in our stores and on our shelves is heartbreaking," Ash said.

In the meantime, services like that provided by MCHD's WIC team will continue to help those of its 2,300-plus clients who need it navigate the crisis.

"We do suggest that they talk to the store, (find out when) they're getting their new stock and shop early after that restock," Colby said. "Shopping midweek is sometimes a suggestion, since the shelves may be stocked a little bit better. Sometimes they can talk to their doctor about a different formula alternative — something their baby can tolerate that is more available."

Colby added that WIC, as a program, does encourage moms to breastfeed "if they still can" or "if they're pregnant and going to deliver soon."

But not everyone can breastfeed or even produce milk — which is one reason why formula is covered by federal WIC benefits to begin with — so that is, at most, a suggestion from MCHD.

On social media, however, breastfeeding has been touted by many as a sweeping solution to the formula shortage, with even actress Bette Midler joining in on Twitter, tweeting Thursday night that women should “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.”

"A lot of moms struggle with breastfeeding so formula is not always their first choice," Ash said. Comments that point to breastfeeding don't "help with the situation at all — it's feeding into these mothers who are struggling to find formula and (into) the added guilt that we already put on ourselves as mothers. I don't know a mother out there who isn't constantly worried, always judging herself, especially in that first year postpartum."

What not to do

Another suggestion that is running rampant on social media, in some cases, is that people create their own formula at home. Bloomington-based OSF HealthCare pediatrician Dr. Michael Endris said that's not actually advisable — at all.

"They are not safe and don't meet the baby's nutritional needs," he said. "In fact, infant deaths have been reported from the use of some homemade formulas."

Endris added that "watering down" formula to make it last longer isn't advisable either, since "it can cause nutritional imbalances that can lead to some serious health problems for babies."

Endris says he encourages people who have pediatricians to call their doctor or doctor's office and ask if they have any samples that they could provide.

"And, while it's not recommended, if you are a parent of a child that's close to a year old, you could switch to toddler formula — if by any other route you can't find an alternative formula to use," he added. "The same goes for using cow's milk: Unless we are very close to 12 months old, I definitely wouldn't encourage using any cow's milk at that age."

In some cases, donated breastmilk is an option. Ash said there's a resource on Facebook for those living in the area.

"We need to make sure we're helping support mothers and parents both mentally and emotionally at this time because it's very scary to not know how you're going to be able to feed your baby."
Ashley Wozniak, Inspired Maternity

"We do have a big Central Illinois breastfeeding group, and most moms who have extra breastmilk from pumping do donate," she said. "So sometimes that's an option: Seeing if there's another mother who has extra breastmilk that you can use."

Extra breastmilk can also be donated to MCHD, although it is shipped elsewhere for pasteurization and the closest "dispensary" is in Champaign, at the Champaign-Urbana Health Department.

And, for those in the Bloomington-Normal area, if driving isn't an issue, a Peoria-based woman has added a formula bank to the services that she was already providing to new moms.

Ashley Wozniak owns Inspired Maternity, a holistic pregnancy and postal health, wellness and fitness studio that's based in Peoria but serves clients from all over the area; the gathering of formula was a direct response to the shortage, she said.

"I came up with the idea of developing a formula 'milk bank' where mothers can contact me, first and foremost, and give me their contact information and specific formula needs," she said. "That way, when formula is donated, I can go through the list of mothers and call them and get it reserved and get it to them."

Like Ash, Wozniak, who is a mom, too, says she's seen and realized firsthand how devastating this shortage is for moms and families to navigate — seemingly alone, with limited to no options.

"We need to make sure we're helping support mothers and parents both mentally and emotionally at this time because it's very scary to not know how you're going to be able to feed your baby, or even to look at switching formulas for babies that have very specific nutritional needs or allergies," she said. "I think on a big, global economic scale, we're not doing enough ... for our mothers and babies."

NPR contributed to this report.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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