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While supplies of baby formula seem to be increasing in North Carolina, many families are still struggling to find enough.

The crisis began early during the pandemic in 2020. It worsened in February of this year, when Abbot Nutrition voluntarily recalled some formula after four babies were hospitalized and two died. That led to an U.S. Food and Drug investigation into the potential link between those cases and the formula produced at the company’s Sturgis, Mich., facility.

The Sturgis facility was closed, briefly restarted production June 4 and closed once again June 15 due to flooding. It reopened July 1.

Since May 19, the White House has imported enough to make millions of bottles of formula through Operation Fly Formula. President Joe Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure formula producers were prioritized to receive supplies.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services dedicated a page on its website to the formula shortage. Updates from the state are published there, along with information about the WIC supplemental nutrition program and breastfeeding.

There are now 80 extra formula options temporarily offered for WIC participants to give families flexibility when stores run low on their normal options, according to Kelly Haight Connor, a communications manager for NCDHHS.

There is no firm date for when those additions will be removed from WIC. According to Connor, the extension is expected to end Sept. 30 or when the national COVID-19 disaster declaration ends, whichever occurs first.

While some families can switch brands if their normal formula is unavailable, not all families have that option.

“Throughout the shortage, specialty formulas (those that address digestive, allergy or other health issues) have been more difficult to find across the country,” Connor said. “The North Carolina WIC program has worked closely with the WIC staff to source specialty formulas for WIC participants that are unable to locate the products in their retail market. The federal government also focused much of Operation Fly Formula on boosting the supply of these specialty formula products.”

To learn more about the formula crisis and available resources, visit the NCDHHS webpage on the shortage. Information is available in multiple languages, for families and for health care professionals.

In June, WIC changed the rules to allow more families to qualify for breast pumps. There has been an almost 20% increase in the number of North Carolina WIC participants who have received one since then, according to Connor. 

In February, 26.2% of infants enrolled in North Carolina WIC were at least partially breastfed. That percentage increased to 26.7% in May, according to Connor.

Breastfeeding is an option for some families, but not everyone has the ability to breastfeed due to work, low supply and other barriers. MarketWatch noted that breastfeeding can also involve extra costs, such as supplements, nursing bras and more.

Connor said interested families can take Ready, Set, Baby live online classes in English and Spanish on breastfeeding. The classes are available for free through the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Shawn Turpin, director of WIC services in Graham County, said residents are still struggling. Families and caregivers call every day asking what brands can be used in place of their normal one.

Turpin said the temporary extra options for WIC have helped but residents still struggle.

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“It helped a lot,” Turpin said via email. “But the other formulas started running low as well. Ingles is our only vendor for contract formula in the county. We can also order from the state if the parent can’t find the formula anywhere, but the state is also having issues getting formula, too.”

WIC suggests pregnant women try to breastfeed before using formula. The Graham office has received more calls from individuals asking about breast pumps.

Turpin said Robbinsville no longer has a food bank, meaning families have even fewer options if they can’t find formula at the store.

“We have not had any reports of homemade formula, but parents are switching older infants to whole milk earlier or until they can find the formula they need,” Turpin said.

Although recipes for formula have been shared online, homemade formula may endanger babies who may not receive the proper balance of nutrients from it, according to UNC Health. Whole milk can also pose a problem for babies under 12 months old and may lead to intestinal bleeding, according to UNC Health and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Turpin said Ingles does not have a purchase limit for formula, but the Graham WIC office asks families to only buy enough to last two weeks at a time. Still, sometimes people buy far more.

“We had a report early on that someone from New York came in and bought $800 worth of formula,” Turpin said. “We have heard of people finding formula at Walmart and hiding it for other family members or friends that need it. However, the formula at Ingles is upfront by the cash registers, so it’s a little harder to do.”

In Mecklenburg County, the expansion of formula options helped lessen the shortage and was “very helpful” for those using WIC, said Suzette Nedrich, a public information officer for the county.

More Mecklenburg families are also turning to breastfeeding.

“The request for breastfeeding support has definitely increased since the formula shortage,” Nedrich said. “We have hired temps to help support the permanent staff, and there are other programs like Queen City COCOA BEANS that offer breastfeeding support.”

Nedrich said that while some retailers did have limits for the amount of formula that could be purchased in a single visit, most have since removed them. 

Neocate, Alfamino and Gerber Good Start Gentle continue to be in short supply in Mecklenburg, according to Nedrich.

Connor said the state is dedicated to making sure families have what they need.

“Although we are beginning to see some indications of more formula available on shelves, NCDHHS remains focused on the goal of ensuring safe and nutritious feeding options for all North Carolina infants,” Connor said.

To learn more about the formula crisis and available resources, visit the NCDHHS webpage on the shortage. Information is available in multiple languages, for families and for health care providers.

Imari Scarbrough

Imari Scarbrough is a contributing writer to Carolina Public Press. Email her at imari.scarbrough@gmail.com

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