Photo Credit: Sandy Eller
The shelves at the Target in Spring Valley, N.Y., on Monday.

It was late April when Sara Owens of South Carolina took to Facebook to share the story of the man she met in the baby formula aisle at Walmart. The shelves were completely empty, and the man had tears rolling down his face as he explained that he had driven to all of the Walmart and Target stores in the area in the hope of finding even one can of the high calorie formula that his infant daughter needed.

“My heart broke to 100 pieces on the formula aisle in Walmart today,” Owens wrote in a post that has since been shared more than 180,000 times. She called on parents who were having difficulty finding formula to share their stories. “If our news medias can cover when we had a toilet paper shortage they can cover this, yet they aren’t … No matter political party or what, our babies matter more!”

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The baby formula shortage has gotten exponentially worse since Owens’s post went viral last month. The shortage is a product of two major factors: supply chain issues that have persisted since the onset of the pandemic, and the complete shutdown of a manufacturing plant that was responsible for producing 43% of the nation’s baby formula supply.

Back in February, Abbott Nutrition voluntarily closed the doors of its Sturgis, Michigan processing facility and issued a recall on some of its baby formulas after a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) probe investigated allegations that four babies contracted bacterial infections from contaminated formula.

(While each of the infants had been fed formula produced at the Sturgis facility, and the FDA investigation did find the presence of bacteria at the plant, NBC News reported that the investigations by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that bacteria samples found did not match the bacteria that sickened the four babies, killing two of them.)

By early April, more than 30 percent of the most widely used baby formulas were out of stock throughout the United States, prompting purchase limitations both in stores and online. According to Datasembly, the national out-of-stock rate for baby formula surged to 43% for the week ending May 8.

While the FDA finally cleared the Sturgis plant to reopen this past Monday, it will take a full ten weeks for operations to resume and for newly manufactured formula to appear on store shelves.

Not surprisingly, creative thinkers have been devising solutions to help those impacted by the crisis. According to Fox 13, a Utah woman is selling nearly 4,000 ounces of frozen breast milk accumulated in her freezers at the price of a dollar an ounce, with discounts possible to help out a fellow mom in need. Multiple eBay listings from user jelaz9 feature bags of frozen breast milk available for shipping, packed in dry ice and insulated bags, via standard mail.

A video posted to TikTok by The Epik Life features a recipe for baby formula made from whole goat’s milk powder, lactose, colostrum, ghee, expeller pressed sunflower, and grapeseed, and blackstrap molasses.

Medical professionals, however, are strongly discouraging DIY formula, as well as the practice of diluting formula. Making formula at home has resulted in serious disability and death in some cases, noted Columbia University Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Rebekah Diamond in an NBC Think essay.

 

As always, the Jewish community has jumped into the fray in an effort to help desperate parents feed their babies. A thread on the shortage posted to the Imamother forum had one woman offering to share surplus cans of Enfamil formula, while a Monsey resident volunteered to buy whatever formula she could locate within 20 minutes of her home and ship it out to those in need. Members of Facebook’s Kosher Costco group posted pictures of in-stock formula at their local stores so that others would know which items were currently available in the area.

Additionally, formula gemachs have popped up in several cities, including Baltimore, Lakewood, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, and Monsey. Community members are urged to drop off any unneeded formula so that it can be shared with those who find themselves growing increasingly frustrated by empty store shelves.

“Most what we are seeing is that specialty formulas are the issue,” explained Avi Goldstein of Tomche Shabbos of Rockland County. “The regular formulas are harder to get than usual, but so far we are seeing that if people drive out to communities where there are fewer children, there is still formula on the shelves.”

Boca Raton resident Amy Zuckerman first heard about the formula shortage from a friend who was thrilled to find two cans of hypoallergenic baby formula in her local Walmart. Zuckerman reached out to Boca Raton Synagogue director of engagement Talia Borenstein to formulate a communal response to the shortage, prompting the creation of a local formula gemach. In addition to accepting donations of funding and formula, the gemach’s database tracks formula requests from local residents and community members are encouraged to buy any formula they see in their day-to-day travels, with the synagogue covering the purchase price, if needed.

“One woman told me she had been to five stores looking for hypoallergenic formula and all she managed to find was two cans at the last store she went to,” said Zuckerman. “That was how she spent her entire Sunday, looking for formula, and this is how many women with children and full time jobs are spending their evenings and Sundays.”

Deseret News contributor Bethany Mandel, who has written extensively on the formula shortage, told The Jewish Press that she is seeing increasing desperation, particularly from parents whose babies have special feeding needs. She praised Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed for reaching out to President Joe Biden last month and asking him to address the baby formula shortage, a request that Mandel feels has gone unheeded by the White House. She is one of many who believe that the shortage could be eased by allowing European formula into the market, even though it cannot be legally sold in the United States since it lacks FDA approval.

“European formula is actually healthier, but the FDA won’t allow it because it is a turf war,” said Mandel. “Just because it isn’t FDA-regulated doesn’t mean it isn’t safe. If we take anything from this, it is that parents should be able to access European formula, which is actually healthier.”

Monsey activist Shoshana Bernstein has been working the phones in an effort to help parents, including a Five Towns mother who searched unsuccessfully for Similac Sensitive for her baby in local stores as well as in Boro Park, Flatbush, and the Bronx.

“Everyone is frantic, because this isn’t like hand sanitizer where you can just use a different brand,” said Bernstein. “We are talking about babies who can projectile vomit from the wrong formula. I spoke to someone who changed formulas and her baby didn’t have a wet diaper for over 24 hours.”

Worse yet, being able to find the occasional can of baby formula does little to solve the problem. “If you can get three cans it might get you through the middle of next week and then it starts all over again,” said Bernstein. “There is a tremendous amount of panic buying and I don’t blame parents who feel that way.”

Sylvia Fallas of Brooklyn realized last week that she had just a seven day supply of Enfamil Gentle Ease Neuro Pro infant formula for her baby, and there wasn’t any available online to replenish her supply. She posted a picture of her baby’s preferred formula on Facebook, and friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even total strangers picked up cans for her in New Jersey, Miami, the Midwest and other locations.

Others have been less charitable: One person texted Fallas a picture of the formula she was looking for, with the $54.99 price tag clearly visible, and offered to buy as many cans as Fallas needed for a price of $75 a can.

But perhaps one of the most striking moments came on the day Fallas first discovered that getting more formula would be a challenge. She was in the middle of preparing a bottle for her baby when her two older children came home from school a few minutes earlier than expected.

“I was already panicking about the formula situation, and I heard the door open and I jumped and I tipped over the bottle,” said Fallas. “I started crying and I called my husband and said ‘In what world do we live in that tipping over a baby bottle makes you cry?’”

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Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients. She can be contacted at sandyeller1@gmail.com.