By Elizabeth Perry
Katherine Cobbs’ son was born three months early.
When baby Dreyton Green finally came home from the hospital, it was in the midst of a baby formula shortage. On top of all the other challenges her infant son faced, the McKees Rocks mom couldn’t find the specialty formula he needed.
“It’s a scary time. It’s not knowing if your children will get the food they need,” Cobbs said.
Dire shortages in baby formula have stressed all parents of infants
Baby Dreyton over the past few months, but they’ve hit families who rely on the special nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, especially hard.
WIC, a program that provides nutritional support to kids across the country, only pays for specific baby formulas.
Lisa Matt, WIC program manager for Allegheny County Health Department, works in a WIC office in McKees Rocks. Each state contracts with a baby formula maker to get the best prices. Matt explained that Pennsylvania contracted with Abbott Nutrition for its approved formula.
“Because the recall was specifically for Abbott Products, it was definitely more difficult for WIC participants,” Matt said.
In February, Abbot, which makes Similac brand baby formula, closed its Michigan plant because of Cronobacter and Salmonella bacterial contamination issues.
Four babies got sick after drinking the formula and two died according to a statement by the Food and Drug Administration.
This closure and recall kicked off a shortage of infant formula across the country, as there are only three major manufacturers of baby formula in the United States; Nestle, which makes Gerber products, Reckitt which makes Enfamil, and Abbott.
As part of a consent decree negotiated by the FDA and the U.S.
Attorney’s office for the Western District of Michigan, Abbott is fixing the issues at the plant. According to a statement from Abbott, the Sturgis plant is set to reopen June 4, with an expectation of seeing formula on the shelves by June 20.
The plant will make formulas from the EleCare and EleCare Jr. lines first.
Those formulas are specially designed for babies with allergies and other digestive issues who can’t have regular formula. Cobbs' son also took a specialty formula. The brand doctors recommended for her preemie was NeoSure, Similac for Premature Babies.
“McKees Rocks is really Limited in what they can offer participants,” Matt said.
Matt said it’s especially hard for WIC recipients in McKees Rocks because discount grocer Aldi does not accept WIC. Unlike parents paying cash, WIC vouchers cannot be used to purchase formula online, adding another complication to the already fraught process.
A quick search using the store locator feature on the WIC website shows the closest store to Cobbs to accept WIC is the Giant Eagle in Kennedy Township. This is a 20-minute bus ride from the Gazette 2.0 offices on Broadway Avenue in Stowe. However, the next closest store that accepts WIC is Kuhn’s Market in Bellevue, which takes upward of an hour by bus.
Cobbs has a vehicle, which helped in her lengthy search across the city to find food for her son. She relied on Facebook groups to try and locate a store that had stock of the formula her baby needed. When she got there, the formula was usually sold out.
She once drove to Robinson and around the East Side of Pittsburgh to three or four different stores until she finally located one that had formula available. It wasn’t the right brand, but she was desperate to feed her son. Dreyton initially refused the formula, but then finally accepted it when he got hungry enough, Cobbs said.
WIC has expanded the types of formulas paid for by the program in hopes of easing the burden on families, Matt said.
Even so, she said, supply chain issues and high demand have substantially affected the availability of formula substitutions.
WIC supports close to 2,500 infants in Allegheny County. Of those, Matt said, 1,900 use formula, either to supplement breastfeeding or as the sole source of nutrition. WIC has always supported breastfeeding through the use of lactation coaches and counseling of pregnant mothers, but Matt admits that it’s not possible for everyone.
“There are different reasons people choose or not choose to breastfeed. One of the biggest barriers to breastfeeding is somebody’s support system,” Matt said.
Having access to areas to safely pump and store milk at work is a huge factor in making breastfeeding viable. For someone like Cobbs, breastfeeding was never an option. Because of the circumstances of his early birth, she couldn’t produce milk and Dreyton survived on donor milk for the time he stayed in the hospital.
Recent actions by the Biden administration have been aimed at easing the crisis.
The administration invoked the Defense Production Act, to expedite supply chains. The crisis has gotten so dire, formula from other countries is being airlifted into the United States. The Access to Baby Formula Act was signed into law on May 21, which compels baby formula manufacturers that are contracted with WIC to include contingency plans to deliver their products. They would need to detail how they would protect against “disruption.” This law also compels them to provide rebates if they can’t fulfill their contractual obligations.
“The state has been working closely with USDA to see what has been available to us, and the formula has been prioritized,” Matt said.
Though this is good news for struggling families, the impact has yet to be felt.
“We didn’t see an immediate result. Everything is en route. I think it is on its way,” Matt said.
In the past, domestic manufacturers made 98% of the formula consumed by babies in this country, according to the FDA. The FDA is also working with European formula manufacturers to import more baby formula.
Cobbs’ son recently turned 1, and she’s now feeding him cow’s milk. She says she hasn’t had the chance to talk to her doctor about it yet, but figures it is a better option than trying to supplement his diet with formula she can’t reliably find.
Luckily, Dreyton seems to be doing well drinking regular milk. Still, it wasn’t a choice Cobbs would have otherwise made.
"You should never have to deal with not being able to feed your kids," Cobbs said.