Amanda Zhou / The Seattle Times
Jae Coleman has grown obsessed. The Tukwila mother never imagined she would have to worry about whether her preferred baby formula for her 5-month-old twin boys would be available at the store.
But now, with a shortage spanning the U.S. — and especially bad in Washington and the Seattle area — the frenzied search of recent weeks has become nearly a full-time job.
Coleman, 27, normally buys Similac 360 Sensitive for one son, who has a sensitive stomach. If he eats anything else, it will upset his gut and he will break out in a rash and cry for days, she said.
Months of supply-chain issues have been exacerbated by a February recall by manufacturer Abbott Nutrition, which was forced to close its Michigan plant after some infants became seriously ill — and at least two died — because of Cronobacter bacteria.
As of April 24, baby formula products in Washington and Seattle had an out-of-stock rate of 45% and 38%, respectively, according to retail software company Datasembly spokesperson Kelly Potts. With available inventory flying off shelves, many retailers and grocery stores are limiting customer purchases.
The shortage has led caregivers to drive to multiple locations and scour social media for tips.
Finding formula for her boys and other families is all Coleman thinks about. About a month ago, she started a Facebook group, Find My Formula, when she realized others were driving to multiple grocery stores or paying for marked-up formula. She has made dozens of free deliveries and hand-offs to families across King and Pierce counties thanks to donations she’s received.
Like many Americans, including about 40,000 in Washington, Coleman relies on the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides nutritional support for low-income families. She receives about $500 a month but that only covers part of the cost of formula for her boys.
The situation is more of a burden for families like hers, she said, who have limited access to transportation. Coleman, unable to use WIC benefits with online retailers, said she’s asked to buy more than the allowable limit at stores because she has twins.
“The moment I get scared that I might not be able to use up all my benefits, I start obsessing,” she said. “I’ll go to as many grocery stores as possible to find leads on formula.”
Coleman’s fear is rooted in reality. The rate of unused WIC formula benefits in Washington has risen from 11% to 39% since December, indicating the struggle for people to find formula, said Paul Throne, director of the state Department of Health’s WIC program.
The department provides WIC support for about half of all babies born in Washington, he said. In recent months, calls to WIC clinics from caregivers looking for help, or facing an store aisle without a single formula brand covered by the subsidy, have more than doubled, he said.
Abbott, which manufactures Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered formulas, provides the majority of WIC-subsidized formula. Around 18,000 Washington babies in the program were on formulas that were recalled in February, Throne said.
WIC has added over 60 different formulas to its coverage, but even those alternatives, he said, aren’t always available in stores.
Throne said the stress will likely continue.
Abbott is currently working to reopen its Sturgis, Michigan factory, but has not yet announced a date. However, the Chicago-based company said it is increasing production at its other facilities to fill the gap, including air-shipping formula from a plant in Ireland, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.
“I wish I could see the light [at the end of the tunnel] right now,” Throne said.
Dalia Lara often drives an hour from her Federal Way home to buy the only baby formula that doesn’t constipate her 3-month-old.
Even under normal circumstances, Lara, 29, struggles to get her hands on the type of Nutramigen product she needs. The shortage has only made her search more difficult.
“I can’t afford to wait,” Lara said Tuesday. “For many of us there’s no other way that we can feed our babies.”
Lara said several Facebook groups where people usually trade baby items have become community spaces where parents post photos of available formulas in Seattle-area grocery stores.
But there are also people taking advantage of the “desperation” parents are currently feeling to feed their children, Lara said. Some mothers, she said, were scammed $200 for formula they never received.
“We’ve been helping each other out in any way we can,” said Lara, who shared a photo of inventory at her local Costco Wednesday on the Find My Formula page.
The shortage is particularly hard on families living in rural areas. The WIC program has heard from individuals driving to multiple stores across counties to find formula, Throne said.
While breast milk is the considered the best source of nutrients for infants, Throne said that’s not always possible for caregivers. Many families choose to use formula — specially formulated to provide appropriate nutrition — or may not have access to breast milk either because of difficulty breastfeeding or because the mother has stopped producing.
Lesley Mondeaux, executive director of the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, said since the Similac recall, the organization is getting regular calls from people checking milk availability.
The bank screens milk donated at partner hospitals in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington and has distribution sites in the Seattle area; at Overlake Hospital Medical Center Mom and Baby Care Center in Bellevue; and EvergreenHealth Medical Center Postpartum Care Center in Kirkland.
Most calls are from those who cannot find advanced formulas in grocery stores anymore and whose babies have complex medical needs, Mondeaux said. While most of the bank’s milk goes to hospitalized babies, around 20% of it goes to babies who aren’t hospitalized but have a prescription, she said.
The milk bank has mainly acted as a short-term solution and has yet to turn anyone away, she said. Usually the organization can ship overnight enough milk to last a few weeks until the family can find their usual formula.
“It’s quite stressful to not be able to feel like you can get adequate food for your baby,” Mondeaux said.
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