ST. LOUIS — Agencies caring for some of the most vulnerable families in the St. Louis area say they are struggling to help desperate moms find food for their babies amid a national formula shortage and educate families about dangerous shortcuts such as homemade recipes or diluting products.
Melinda Monroe, executive director of Nurses for Newborns, said the home visitation agency has seen a large uptick in calls for help over the past couple weeks. And many are dire.
“It’s rough. Moms are saying, ‘I’m out of formula, I don’t have any to give my baby tonight,’” Monroe said. “We don’t typically see this.”
The nonprofit agency mainly depends on donations of formula for the approximately 650 families they serve, Monroe said. Their shelves, however, are bare.
“We have three cans where would normally l have several hundred at this point in time,” she said.
Months of spot shortages at stores have been exacerbated by a massive safety recall by Abbott Nutrition that swept many leading brands off store shelves. Abbott was forced to shutter its largest U.S. formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination concerns, and the facility is still not operating.
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their output and is streamlining paperwork to allow more imports. President Joe Biden also met Thursday with baby formula manufacturers to see how his administration can help. And stores are limiting the amounts parents can buy to prevent hoarding.
Meanwhile, moms like Taneasha Condra, 33, of Florissant, are spending hours going from store to store. On Thursday, she had no formula left for her 9-month-old twins. She had no luck during her search in the morning, and was heading back in the afternoon to try and catch shipments hitting shelves.
“It’s so hard. It’s upsetting. It’s past frustrating,” Condra said. She’s also very fearful to buy the Similac brand as a substitute because certain lots of Similac were involved in the recall.
Shyneia Graham, 32, of Manchester, is driving store-to-store with her 3-month-old in tow in search of a specialty formula for premature babies. Her baby was born seven weeks early. She also has family and friends on the lookout.
“It’s scary,” said Graham, who recently had to drive to four different stores and ended up more than 12 miles away in Brentwood. “I haven’t really thought about what would happen if I can’t find her formula. I just hope that every month I continue to find it no matter how far I have to drive.”
‘Like a mama bear’
Dr. Heather Joyce, a Mercy Kids pediatrician with an office in O’Fallon, Missouri, said worried calls from her patients have ramped up over the past two weeks and continue to increase. On Thursday, her office was getting about three calls every 20 minutes.
They need help finding an appropriate substitute for their usual formula, or they are seeking free samples. They are complaining about their babies spitting up, having gas or crying from switching brands or types such as powders or liquid concentrates.
Joyce also hears from patients driving hours to find formula, buying from questionable sources online and having out-of-town family members ship any amounts they may find.
In most cases, nurses can help parents come up with alternatives that are easier to find, but the recall has scared a lot of patients toward other brands.
“There’s just a lot of mistrust and fear,” Joyce said. “I hope that most of our families can put trust in our opinion.”
Agencies working with families struggling with poverty say they are especially hard-hit by the shortage.
Many moms depend on the state-administered Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children to purchase their formula. The program, known as WIC, supports low-income pregnant women, new moms and children younger than 5.
Missouri had contracted with Abbott for its WIC program, said Kristen Gore, director of the WIC program at Affinia Healthcare clinics in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The recall wiped out nearly 85% of what was on shelves, making it harder to replenish supplies.
The WIC program has since allowed a long list of other types and brands, but not all stores accept WIC vouchers, so families’ choices are limited. Walgreens, CVS and Target stores do not accept the vouchers in Missouri.
Gore said families are instead using their own funds to buy whatever they can find, even driving to Illinois where Missouri vouchers aren’t accepted.
Formula containers can cost anywhere from $25 to $40 each and last from a few days to a week. High gas prices are also hitting pocketbooks.
“One person told me they drove to Columbia, Missouri, to get formula,” Gore said, “so besides them having a hard time finding formula and maybe even having to pay out-of-pocket, they are having to drive far distances, which is also costing them money as well.”
Gore said staff across Affinia’s clinics are calling stores for clients and trying to help direct them to spots with what they need in stock, especially for those who don’t have transportation and can’t try multiple places or Internet access to connect to support through social media.
Some moms even want to learn how to begin breastfeeding again, which is possible, but the process takes time and is not an immediate fix, Gore said.
For the most part, parents are scared and angry, she said, and WIC staff is experiencing a lot of backlash even though there is nothing they can do.
“It’s understandable. They are like a mama bear,” Gore said. “They are upset and don’t have anything to feed their babies.”
Risk of child abuse
Molly Brown is the senior clinical director for St. Louis Crisis Nursery, which operates five nurseries that serve as short-term safe havens for 5,000 children a year whose families in crisis because of illness, homelessness, domestic violence or overwhelming stress.
On Thursday, six infants were in the agency’s care, Brown said. The nurseries not only must have numerous types of formula on hand for whoever arrives at their door, they also distribute formula to anyone who asks through its nurseries or 10 outreach centers in St. Louis and Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties.
The agency’s goal is to prevent child abuse and neglect.
“Not being able to provide for your family increases stress levels dramatically,” Brown said, “And we know that when stress levels increase, the risk for child abuse also increases.”
Brown said the agency is extremely fortunate. Immediately after the formula recall, leaders decided to host an online formula donation drive through Amazon.com. Purchases poured in, even some from out of state.
Brown said they are luckily able to help those in need. Families can call 314-768-3201 to arrange a pickup. St. Charles families can call 636-947-0600.
The agency has seen an increase in calls over the past two weeks, she said. “While we know we have enough right now for babies in our care and to support families that are calling, we do worry as the crisis continues, how long our supplies will last.”
Gore and Monroe at Nurses for Newborns said their nursing staffs are busy reminding families to not try to stretch the amount of formula they have by adding water to it, which can be toxic for babies and fail to provide what they need to grow and develop.
Babies should also not be given cow’s milk before they turn 1. And despite the recipes that may be circulating online, do not give homemade concoctions to babies.
“So, what is the magic answer right now?” Monroe said. “There isn’t any except that families need to educate themselves ASAP on what the equivalents are on the formulas that they use.”
She urged families to call their pediatrician or community clinic to discuss their options. Some older babies may be able to transition to cow’s milk or toddler formulas. Ask neighbors if they have samples. Ask friends to keep an eye out when they shop.
“The issues here is how long is this going to last,” Monroe said. “These tips and tricks are very short term, and what we are hearing is that manufacturing is ramping up as much as they can, but there are thousands of babies born every day.”
They are used to helping families plan ahead, she said, “and that planning-ahead piece is falling apart.”