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Local mothers are managing during infant formula shortage

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
Two-month-old Myr-rikle is being fed by her mother, Jamia Jordan. She currently requires a special formula to deal with acid reflux.

For several months now, new mothers have had to go the extra mile to find formula for their babies.

“It’s hard finding formula,” said Selena Howington of Milton. She’s mother of one-month-old Aliyah. “We’ve been to like 5 or 6 different stores before we were able to get any, and we’ve been through a few different kinds.”

With feedings and changings through the night, Howington is getting very little sleep. But, when asked, she said her baby was pretty good, “She doesn’t cry that much, unless she’s hungry.”

As if on cue, Aliyah begins to cry, until she gets a midafternoon bottle.

As her baby fed, Howington said she feels fortunate that her little one can tolerate different brands of formula and that she’s only going through so much of it each time as a newborn.

“She’s taking five ounces right now, so it’s not as much. So, the formula lasts a little bit longer.”

The experience Howington describes is representative of what families with infants are having to endure locally and across the country due to a nationwide shortage of infant formula.

The shortage started as a COVID-19 supply chain issue and was exacerbated in February by the massive recall and closure of the Abbott plant in Sturgis, Michigan. Efforts to reopen the plant have been hampered by recent flooding.

Selena Howington feeds her baby, Aliyah. The first-time mother has her family helping her keep baby formula in stock.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Selena Howington feeds her baby, Aliyah. The first-time mother has her family helping her keep baby formula in stock.

On the upside, the new mother was well aware of the shortage by the time her baby was born on May 5.

“After my delivery, before we went home, we asked the nurse for some of the bottles she had in there,” Howington stated. “She gave us a pack of that to take home and we could only get one because of the shortage. So, that lasted for a little bit until we were able to find some ourselves.”

After a recent store run of her own, and close family and friends on the lookout, Howington believed she had enough formula to last a few weeks.

"My daughter is Myr-rikle, she’s two months, born on April 12, 7 pounds, 4 ounces. As of Monday, she’s 10 pounds, 5.5 ounces,” said mother, Jamia Jordan, who lives in West Pensacola.

Like Howington, Jordan has family helping her to find formula. But, in Myr-rikle’s case, options are more limited.

“She has really bad acid reflux, so she uses the red Enfamil, the A.R. milk. It’s extremely hard to find," Jordan stated. "The cans she has now, we had to drive to the Walmart in Gulf Breeze to get.”

Jordan actually lives close to a Walmart store on Mobile Highway. To deal with the shortage, she’s figured out when the trucks come in and the shelves have been restocked. She says the early bird gets the worm, “If I’m there by 6 (a.m.), I can get all the milk I want, or need.”

Shelves at the Walmart on Mobile Highway in Pensacola are bare during the infant formula shortage.
Stephanie Averhart
Courtesy photo
Shelves at the Walmart on Mobile Highway in Pensacola are bare during the infant formula shortage.

Baby Myr-rikle is still on breastmilk, so she only goes through about one can a week.

When she can’t find formula on her own, Jordan acknowledged that her family members have really come through for her. Now a mother of three young children, she knows how tough it is to be a new mom. So, when she becomes aware of a store that has formula, she said she makes a point to share that information by posting it on social media.

As she looks to get back to work after childbirth, Jordan is benefitting from the Florida Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Childrenor WIC, which provides supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income mothers and their young children, up to age 5.

To help her produce breastmilk, WIC provided a breast pump. When she stops breastfeeding, the program will cover the cost of her baby’s formula and a variety of other foods as needed.

“We just want parents to know that the Florida Department of Health in Escambia Countyand WIC are monitoring the current shortage and we take this life-threatening issue very seriously,” said Sonya MacGregor, WIC program director at FDOH-Escambia.

Members of the staff have been getting updates from clients and also checking it out for themselves.

“We have been going out to the stores periodically and trying to see what’s out on the shelves. However, this is constantly changing,” McGregor said.

That means shelves stocked with formula today may be near empty within a couple of days.

Selena Howington mixes formula for her baby, Aliyah.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Selena Howington mixes formula for her baby, Aliyah.

McGregor said the recall by Abbott and the ongoing shutdown of operations at its Michigan plant has put a strain on the entire baby formula market. But, she points out that FDOH has been proactive in its response to the national shortage dating back to the initial recall in February.

“The department immediately reached out to all the retailers that accept the WIC benefits to recommend ordering an alternative supply of formula for them,” she said.

Additionally, McGregor said the department has found alternative products to offset for the shortage of formula for the most at-risk babies who depend on medical specialty formula.

For nutritional reasons for all babies, parents should not try to compensate by reducing the amount of formula, watering it down or trying to make their own. More information is available from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Any parent who needs help is encouraged to call their local health department and speak to a WIC nutritionist.

“We are available to answer their questions, what formulas we have available for them as alternatives,” McGregor began. “We refer them to their pediatrician often, because they need to call their pediatrician to see if they have office samples or can suggest similar formula that may be more readily available in the stores.”

Food banks and purchasing from reputable online retailers are other options.

The White House is addressing the infant formula shortage by invoking the Defense Authorization Act, taking steps to reopen Abbott’s facility in Michigan, and launching Operation Fly Formula to speed up the import of formula to get more on store shelves as soon as possible.

Supplies on the store shelves have fluctuated, so individuals need to continue to check for availability.

Thus far, new mothers Howington and Jordan confirm they’ve been able to shop around and find what they need.

Howington’s baby, Aliyah, had a stock of about 10 cans of infant formula.

Jordan acknowledged that it was just about time to put the feelers out to family and friends and begin her search again.

“This is when I text and call and say, ‘Hey, Myr-rikle is down to her last two cans. If you can find milk, let me know if I need to come pick it up or go to a certain store.’”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.