Maricella Márquez focused on last box of formula milk in her kitchen and gave her 3-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare allergic disorder of the esophagus, a smaller-than-usual portion of the special nutrition she needs to stay healthy.
Marquez called sellers across Texas, asking for new shipments. “For the moment, they have nothing”mentioned. “I’m desperate”.
Marquez lives on the outskirts of San Antonio, a city that has had the highest rate of formula shortages in the nation –56% of normal supplies were out of stock on Tuesdayaccording to retail software company Datasembly– in the midst of a national supply crisis that left parents struggling to feed their children.
The shortage has been a challenge for families across the country, but it’s especially palpable at grocery stores and food banks in San Antonio, a predominantly Latino city in South Texas, where many mothers do not have health insurance and they work in low-paying jobs that offer them few opportunities to breastfeed. Across the city, baby food aisles are nearly empty, and nonprofits are working overtime to secure new supplies.
The shortage has been exacerbated by the recall of a faulty brand this year, after at least four babies were hospitalized with a bacterial infection and at least two died.. But the setback was compounded by ongoing supply chain issues and labor shortages. Datasembly’s research revealed that The national infant formula stock-out rate reached 43% in the week ending Sunday, 10% higher than last month’s average.
Republicans have seized on growing parental anxiety about blame President Joe Biden, arguing that the administration has not done enough to increase production. On Tuesday, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture, saying federal authorities had been too slow to respond.
The FDA, which is leading the federal response, said officials worked with Abbott Nutrition, the company involved in the recall, to restart production at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan. The agency said he had been regularly meet with various infant formula manufacturers to increase production capacity and urge retailers to consider placing sales limits in infant formula.
“We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access the infant formula and essential medical foods they are accustomed to and are frustrated that they cannot,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf, in a statement. “We do everything in our power to ensure the right product is available where and when they need it.”
Across the country, many mothers say they are ration food for their babies while looking for more artificial milk. Some drive for several hours, only to find more empty shelves.
On the Internet, private sellers are abuse prices, sell cans at double or triple their normal price, and many major retailers sold out of stock.
Since the closure of Abbott Nutrition’s factory in Sturgis, other manufacturers have struggled to rapidly ramp up production as their operations are geared towards a steady level of consumer demand, according to Rudi Leuschner, associate professor of management at supply chain at Rutgers Business School.
“Some industries are very good at increasing and reducing production”says Dr. Leuschner. “If you flip a switch, they can produce 10 times more. Formula milks are not this type of product”.
Outraged wider supply chain issues that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic, such as labor shortages and difficulty obtaining raw materials, the problem may be exacerbated by panic buying explained Dr. Leuschner.
Abbott Nutrition said it was doing everything it could, including ramping up production at its other US factories and shipping product from its Irish factory.
However, for parents who need to give their babies less food than they need, even a temporary shortage is scary. Some parents are search for homemade infant formula recipes on the Internet, Although health experts have warned that these formulas may lack vital nutrients or present other dangers.
“We also recommend not diluting the formula as this can lead to poor nutritional balance and create serious problems.”said Kelly Bocanegra, manager of the federal Women, Infants and Children program in the San Antonio metro area.
At San Antonio Children’s Hospital, doctors encourage new mothers to increase the amount of milk that is expressed and breastfeed as much as possible.
However, some are unable to breastfeed due to a lack of supplies or other health issues, and health workers said many mothers who work in fast food, retail or other low-paying jobs cannot afford to breastfeed.
Parents like Marquez, whose kids need special diets, don’t have that option either. In some cases, these parents were already struggling to pay boxes of baby formula that can cost more than $100 each, said Elyse Bernal, president of Any Baby Can, a nonprofit that provides access to care for children with special needs.
“It’s very scary, especially for families who have to have a particular mix formula, because now they’re worried about how they can feed their baby,” said Megan Sparks, one of the case managers at the band.
For Darice Browning, the shortage of specialty formulas in Oceanside, Calif., was so acute that she considered going to the ER just to feed her youngest daughter, Octavia, who is 10 months old and suffers from rare genetic conditions that currently prevent her from eating solid foods. The food allergies she shares with her 21-month-old sister, Tokio, cause both babies to vomit blood if they eat milk protein.
At one point, Browning said, she called all of her daughters’ doctors looking for formula, only to be told none had any.
“I panicked, crying on the floor, and my husband, Lane, came home from work and said, ‘What’s wrong? ‘I can’t feed our children, I don’t know what to do’”.
In Pell City, Alabama, Carrie Fleming put half a tablespoon less formula in every bottle she makes for her 3-month-old daughter, Lennix.
Fleming had tried to breastfeed Lennix but was unable to produce enough milk. So Lennix had severe allergic reactions to nine different milk-based formulas: he had skin rashes, he cried constantly and he vomited everything he ate. The only formula Lennix can tolerate is a hypoallergenic formula called PurAmino, which Fleming can’t find anywhere near.
He called stores and pharmacies as far away as Florida and Ohio and posted on Facebook in April asking for help. Ultimately, found four small cans at a New York formula store for $245.
He tries to make these cans last three weeks instead of the normal two. “It’s very scary,” he said.
In the small town of Richland, Georgia, where Sandra James, 36, lives, there is only one grocery store. These last months, she couldn’t find a special formula for her 8 month old son, Kenson, who has hives and hair that falls out when he drinks formula.
At first, he searched five nearby Walmarts, driving for hours after work until he found the special formula he needed. Sometimes he’s been to five or six stores a day, even in Alabama, before he finds a can.
In the meantime, she gives her son more water and mashed vegetables to try to make his formula last longer.
“It’s exhausting, very exhausting”mentioned.
Parents who have tried shopping online say they have found not only higher prices, but scams. Two weeks ago, K-Rae Knowles of Oregon, Illinois, sent money to a stranger in exchange for cans of special formula she needed for her 4-month-old son, Callan . The cans never arrived, he said, and the seller’s Facebook profile was deleted a few days later.
“People are very cautious right now,” he said. “It’s really heartbreaking that people take advantage of this kind of shortage.”.
In San Antonio, Marquez said she never thought she would rely on formula to keep her daughter healthy at such an advanced age. But then her daughter was diagnosed and told the special formula was the only thing that would keep her out of the hospital.
Starting in early April, she supplements her diet with fruits, vegetables, ground turkey and other vegetable proteins.
“There are very few other things I can take,” he said. “It’s not like I can give him a Happy Meal. Or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Even when available, formula is expensive. Once their health insurance pays 80% of the cost, the family must shell out $375 per month, when food is available. Only her husband works as a grocery store manager, so the money is lacking, she says.
She plans to make do this week with samples of other products that vendors have in stock and try out those her daughter can tolerate for the time being.
“I have no other choice,” he said. “I need it. I want her to stay healthy and not have to go to the hospital.