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Baby formula shortage is particularly painful for foster and adoptive families

"There are often additional layers of support and services that these families and the children being parented need,” an adoption advocate said.
Baby formula shortage
Low supplies and empty shelves of baby formula at a Target in Carmel, Ind., on Saturday.Jason Bergman / Sipa USA via AP

Karen Braxton is a proud foster care mom who delights in the 9-month-old baby girl she and her husband welcomed to their Baltimore home in 2021.

“She’s doing great,” Braxton said by phone, as the infant gurgled in the background. “She’s thriving.”

Yet Braxton, who also cares for a toddler, is concerned about a shortage of baby formula that’s swept the country. The shortfall, which began during the pandemic, has only worsened recently because of supply chain disruptions and product recalls.

“I was watching the news and wrote down all the lot numbers that were recalled,” Braxton said. “I had a few cans of formula that were OK. But I had a case of the powder formula that was recalled. I immediately set it aside. What if she’d gotten sick?”

The nationwide out-of-stock percentage for formula was more than 40 percent for the week ending May 8, according to retail analysis firm Datasembly, though Food and Drug Administration estimates using data from Information Resources Inc. put it at only 20 percent. It could take weeks for stores to fully stock up again.

Karen Braxton and her foster daughter.
Karen Braxton and her foster daughter.Karen Braxton

Families across the country are reeling from the sudden shortage, but adoptive families and foster families, like Braxton’s, are being left in an especially difficult spot. These households often rely exclusively on baby formula to feed their children.

“Infant formula is a staple for many moms and infants, including moms who may not be able to nurse and infants who may not have a mom or may have trouble feeding,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., who co-chairs the Black Maternal Health Caucus.

“No parent should have to worry where their infant’s next meal is coming from, and no infant in our country should ever go hungry,” Adams said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, approximately three-quarters of parents in the U.S. use formula to feed their infants.

“Moms, dads and families of many different compositions rely on formula for all sorts of reasons,” said Christen Linke Young, the deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for Health and Veterans. 

“I’m acutely aware of this in my own family,” she added. “I have a daughter who’s almost 4 and she used formula, and I’m expecting a second child. I know how important it is that formula is on the shelves, and the American people should know we’re working around the clock to do that.”

Some relief may be on the way.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to increase baby formula production and launched an effort to import formula from abroad.

Separately, formula-maker Abbott said Monday it had reached an agreement with the FDA to reopen a Sturgis, Michigan, plant that has been shut down since February. The FDA announced an investigation after receiving reports of infants falling ill with bacterial infections, which may have contributed to the deaths of two babies. The agency said the infants had consumed formula made at the plant.

Abbott said in a statement that “a thorough review of all available data indicates that the infant formula produced at our Sturgis facility is not likely the source of infection in the reported cases and that there was not an outbreak caused by products from the facility.”

The company said it could take six to eight weeks for products to return to shelves after production restarts. The company did not say when it would resume production.

That is still little consolation to families in desperate need.

“A shortage can compound already complicated circumstances and situations,” said April Dinwoodie, a national adoption activist. In the 1970s, she was placed in temporary foster care days after her birth and adopted months later. “While not all foster and adoptive families experience a lack of resources, there are often additional layers of support and services that these families and the children being parented need.”

“Not being able to meet the basic needs of the children entrusted to you through foster care and adoption can add acute stressors to families that are [often] already managing early life traumas and family separations,” said Dinwoodie, a podcaster who also founded AdoptMent, a mentoring program that matches foster youth with adopted adults.

Nationally, the out-of-stock rate for infant formula has risen to 43 percent. In April, at least three major metro areas — Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis; and San Antonio — had out-of-stock rates at 50 percent or higher.

As a result of the shortage, some parents are being forced to ration food or travel for hours to obtain formula, and many retailers are limiting the amount of formula families can purchase at one time.

About half of infant formula nationwide is bought by families in the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, aka WIC.

Braxton receives WIC benefits, and her electronic card enables her family to purchase a certain amount of formula. She said it’s helpful but does not cover all of the baby’s formula needs.

“Formula is very expensive. She goes through at least four bottles a day,” she said. 

Across the country, various nonprofit and grassroots organizations whose work encompasses foster care populations are stepping in to fill the gap.

Among them is Graham Windham, one of the nation’s oldest social service agencies for children and families, which serves about 900 foster children. Most are children of color.

“We have been able to assist our families by providing the extra funding they’ve needed to purchase formula for babies with sensitive dietary needs, diapers and other essential needs,” Kimberly Hardy Watson, the agency’s CEO and president, said. “In these times of scarcity, the price of baby formula has skyrocketed, making it very difficult for our families to afford the formula once they’ve found it.”

In Los Angeles, the nonprofit group Baby2Baby called the formula shortage a “true emergency.” The organization provides diapers and essential items to children in foster care, homeless shelters, domestic violence programs, hospitals and underserved schools nationwide.

“Many parents who already struggled to afford formula are resorting to watering down the little formula they have to make it last longer, while others cannot feed their babies at all,” co-CEOs Norah Weinstein and Kelly Sawyer Patricof said in a recent letter to their network. “There is no greater crisis.”

Baby2Baby said it is responding to the shortage “by working directly with our wholesale partners to have lifesaving formula made for a fraction of the retail cost,” to procure more and “get it into the hands of families who need it most.”

For adoptive and foster families who may desire to use donated breast milk to feed their babies, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America is a potential resource.

“Demand is soaring,” said Lindsay Groff, executive director of the group, which accredits nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. and Canada and sets international guidelines for pasteurized human donor milk. She said “medically fragile” infants who need lifesaving care are prioritized, but “member milk banks serve foster and adoptive families whenever possible.”

After undergoing a health screening, mothers can donate their extra breast milk for use.

“It’s pooled, pasteurized and tested,” Groff said, adding that the milk is frozen and shipped overnight. “We believe donor milk is a universal standard of care, and we provide it regardless of one’s ability to pay.”

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a supplemental funding bill to provide the FDA with resources to address the shortage, including by increasing the number of inspectors and helping the agency stop fraudulent baby formula from entering the marketplace.

Both the House and Senate have passed legislation that would allow families using WIC benefits to purchase other brands during shortages, so their children do not go hungry if certain brands are unavailable.

To help further increase manufacturers’ ability to meet demand and distribute formula, the Agriculture Department is working with states to make it easier for families to purchase the formula they need with their WIC benefits. USDA is also urging states to allow WIC recipients to use their benefits on a wider variety of products, so if certain sizes or types of formula are out of stock, they can use their benefits on those that are in stock. Moreover, the agency is urging states to relax their requirements that stores keep a certain amount of formula in stock.

That’s good news to Braxton.

“I love being a foster mom,” she said. “And I want to do all I can to make sure the children are happy and healthy.”