Northwest interior parents scramble as national formula shortage empties store shelves


Morgan Moss had to discard 12 boxes of Similac formula in February as part of a nationwide recall. But her toddler son, Jackson, soon needed a replacement for a sensitive stomach, so she got resourceful, fast.

“Since that time, we’ve moved on to another brand, and it happens to be hit or miss depending on whether we can find it in the store,” Moss said.

She joined many other local parents who took to social media and asked for help from friends and family amid the national formula shortage. The problems – which first emerged last fall – escalated after the February recall of products from Abbott Nutrition, a major supplier.

The issue caught the attention of President Joe Biden and both political parties. They hope to cut red tape, boost imports of infant formula and discourage price gouging, according to statements released by congressional officials from the region and the White House.

Parents in the Spokane area say it’s been stressful and many stores now have a limit on purchases.

Moss was one of the first to join a private Facebook group, Formula Find & Swap Spokane, created in January, allowing parents to swap unopened and unexpired cans or share where to look. Members agree that they will not charge but will only donate if they have products.

“One thing that’s been really great is the ‘Formula Find & Swap’ Facebook page, the local Buy Nothing groups, and another Facebook page called ‘Spokane Mammas,’ where people donate various types of formula,” he said. she declared. “Moms are able to catch them.”

“There has been tremendous support and the community has stepped up to make sure our babies are fed.”

Some parents ask a network of friends and family every time they shop to scan recently empty shelves in case the formula is restocked, and they will refund them.

Since the fall, infant formula shipments have been spotty — as with many retail products — due to supply chain issues and labor shortages.

On February 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a recall of three brands of powdered infant formula due to possible Cronobacter contamination. The CDC told families to discard certain Similac, Alimentum or EleCare powdered infant formulas that met specific codes and dates.

Over the past few weeks, national and local retail supply posts have shown empty or nearly empty shelves for formula products. Spokane Valley mom Bekkah Baker had to search for replacement formula for her now 7-month-old daughter shortly after the Similac recall.

“My daughter was premature so she had a very sensitive stomach and had to be on a certain guy for a while,” Baker said. “Since Similac was involved in this recall, I had to throw away about 13 cans. She was on a sensitive Similac.

“After the recall I didn’t feel comfortable keeping her on Similac so I went to the Target brand because I found it was quite similar but all the formulas were sold out except the Target Advantage brand. We had no other formula, so we had no choice but to change it.

When Baker then needed to buy it again, Target no longer had that brand and the retailer had no online shopping.

Her daughter then opted for Kirkland ProCare, a Costco brand. On April 12, Baker went to Costco and learned that the product was out of stock and out of stock until April 21. Again, she couldn’t order it online. She kept checking, even going back to Target – nothing.

“I had to use the Fred Meyer brand, which caused him to react, and I was left with a scoop when Costco finally got some. It was stressful. There’s not much that gets to you more than not being able to take care of your children. I was worried if she would change and have a bad reaction.

“I worked all day on April 20 and 21, and I didn’t know if, when I finally got there at 6am, if there would be any left, but there was – luckily.”

For the past few weeks, she said Costco stores have set a two-can limit. However, her daughter has just started on solid food, so “we won’t need as much.”

The United States Food and Drug Administration has warned parents against making their own formula.

The FDA said the formula is strictly regulated to provide specific nutrients in specific amounts needed by infants.

The agency reported that it has received reports of infants hospitalized for having low calcium levels due to homemade formula. In addition, homemade formulas could be contaminated and therefore deadly.

Eric Williams, director of community partnerships for Second Harvest, said requests for infant formula have increased over the past two weeks at partner food distribution outlets. These include local food banks, food pantries, meal programs, churches and mobile markets in a 26-county region.

“We are currently receiving relatively small amounts of formula,” Williams said.

He said donations are encouraged, but only unopened and unexpired products, as infant formula is one of the few foods with a government-regulated best before date.

At Spokane Valley Partners, a nonprofit that owns a food bank, CEO Cal Coblentz said the agency doesn’t typically stock a lot of formula because of the large number of different brands and the different needs of infants. However, Coblentz said her food bank would accept donations if they were unopened and they would be distributed to those in need.

Additional calls have also poured in to the Spokane Regional Health District, spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins said.

“It’s been hard to find formula since November, and the recall has only exacerbated the situation,” she said.

Women, Infants & Children, a government program that provides food to low-income women and children, recently made adjustments to allow brands other than WIC-approved Similac brands, Hawkins said. If callers say they can’t find any infant formula in stores, WIC suggests they check with the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery or local food banks, Hawkins said.

Vanessa Behan provides crisis care for children and supplies for families with young children. In recent months, the nursery has struggled to find formula both to give to families and to feed the babies in its care, said Amy Vega, chief executive.

Although they have a formula, the quantity and brands are very limited, Vega said.

Formula donations are down, Vega said. Normally, the nonprofit organization uses donated formula for children in their care, but with the shortage, they had to buy formula, Vega said.

Most low-income families use Similac because it’s covered by WIC, she said. The nursery was unable to keep the brand in stock, so in some cases they had to work with families to replace the child’s formula.

Parents more frequently request formula milk when picking up diapers, wipes and other daycare necessities, Vega said.

They didn’t have much to give away, Vega said, before encouraging community members to donate unopened, unexpired formula if they have it or can find it online and the ship to the nursery. The financial support also helps to reduce additional expenses related to the purchase of infant formula for children in the charity’s care, Vega said.

While families feel desperate when they can’t find formula, Vega reminds people not to water down bottles so their supply lasts longer.

“It’s just not good for the health of the baby,” Vega said.

Sue Perkins, a longtime Spokane family and nurse educator for children, echoed that warning.

“It’s a little worrying because if people try to dilute the formula, it’s a little dangerous for their babies; it can create some pretty significant electrolyte imbalances,” Perkins said.

“You can’t dilute the formula, because then you get more water than there are nutrients and it takes out your sodium. This is an important thing to get people to understand, that causes electrolyte imbalances, and babies don’t get what they need for nourishment.

Journalist Emma Epperly contributed to this story.

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