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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inland Northwest parents scramble as nationwide baby formula shortage empties store shelves

Morgan Moss had to throw away 12 cans of Similac baby formula in February under a nationwide recall. But her infant son, Jackson, soon needed a replacement for a sensitive stomach, so she got resourceful, quickly.

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

She’s joined many other local parents who’ve reached out on social media and sought help from friends and family amid the national baby formula shortage. The problems – which arose last fall – worsened after the February recall of products from Abbott Nutrition, a major supplier.

The issue has earned the attention of President Joe Biden and both political parties. They hope to ease regulatory red tape, boost imports of formula and discourage price gouging, according to statements issued by the region’s congressional representatives and the White House.

Spokane-area parents say it’s been stressful, and many stores now have a limit on purchases.

Moss was one of the first to join a Facebook private group, Formula Find & Swap Spokane, created in January, for parents to trade unopened, unexpired cans or share where to look. Members agree they won’t charge but only donate if they have products.

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

“There’s been a huge support, and the community rallying around making sure our babies are fed.”

Some parents are asking a network of friends and family, whenever they shop, to scan recently empty shelves in case formula is being restocked, and they’ll pay them back.

Since the fall, baby formula shipments have been spotty – similar to many retail products – because of supply chain issues and labor shortages.

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

In recent weeks, national and local posts about retailer supplies have shown empty or nearly empty shelves for formula products. Spokane Valley mom Bekkah Baker had to hunt for a replacement formula for her now 7-month-old daughter soon after the Similac recall.

“My daughter was a preemie, so she had a really sensitive stomach and had to be on a certain type for a while,” Baker said. “Since Similac was involved in that recall, I had to throw about 13 cans out. She was on a Similac sensitive one.

“After the recall, I didn’t feel comfortable keeping her on Similac, so I went to look at the Target brand because I found it was pretty similar, but every formula was sold out, except for the Target Advantage brand. We didn’t have any other formula, so we didn’t have any choice but to switch her.”

When Baker later needed to buy it again, Target was out of that brand, and the retailer didn’t have any online for purchase.

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

“I had to use the Fred Meyer brand, which gave her a reaction, and I had one scoop left when Costco finally had some. It was stressful. There is not a lot that gets to you more than not being able to take care of your kids. I was worried if she’d have to switch and get a bad reaction.

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

In recent weeks, she said the Costco stores have set a limit of two cans. However, her daughter just started on solids, “so we won’t need as much.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned parents against making their own formula.

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

The agency has reported that it has received reports of infants being hospitalized for having low calcium because of homemade formula. Furthermore, homemade formulas could become contaminated and thus life-threatening.

Eric Williams, Second Harvest director of community partnerships, said requests for baby formula have increased the past week or two at partner food distribution outlets. Those include local food banks, food pantries, meal programs, churches and mobile markets across a 26-county region.

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

He said donations are encouraged, but only unopened and unexpired products, because baby formula is one of the few foods that have a government-regulated use-by date.

At Spokane Valley Partners, a nonprofit that has a food bank, CEO Cal Coblentz said the agency doesn’t typically stock a lot of formula because of so many different brands and different needs of infants. However, Coblentz said its food bank would accept donations if unopened, and they’d be distributed to people in need.

Extra calls also have flooded into the Spokane Regional Health District, said spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins.

“It’s been a hardship to find formula since November, and the recall just exacerbated the situation,” she said.

Women, Infants & Children, a government program that provides food to low-income women and children, has made recent adjustments to allow brands beyond its WIC-approved Similac ones, Hawkins said. If callers say they can’t find any formula product in stores, WIC is suggesting they check with the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery or local food banks, Hawkins said.

Vanessa Behan offers crisis care to children and supplies to 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 their care, said Amy Vega, executive director.

While they do have some formula, the amount and brands are very limited, Vega said.

Donations of formula are way down, Vega said. Normally, the nonprofit uses donated formula for the children in their care, but with the shortage they’ve had to purchase formula, Vega said.

Most low-income families use Similac because it’s covered by WIC, she said. The nursery hasn’t been able to keep the brand stocked, so in some cases they’ve had to work with families to substitute the child’s formula.

Parents have been asking for formula more frequently when picking up diapers, wipes and other necessities from the nursery, Vega said.

They haven’t had much to give, Vega said, before encouraging community members to donate unopened, unexpired formula if they have it or can find it online and ship it to the nursery. Financial support also helps curb the extra expense of purchasing formula for children in the nonprofit’s care, Vega said.

While families feel desperate when they can’t find formula, Vega has been reminding people not to water down baby’s bottles to make their supply last longer.

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

Sue Perkins, a longtime Spokane family and child nurse educator, echoed that caution.

“It’s a little concerning because if people are trying to dilute the formula, that’s kind of dangerous for their babies; it can create pretty significant electrolyte imbalances,” Perkins said.

“You can’t dilute the formula out because then you’re getting more water than there are nutrients and it throws your sodium off. That’s an important thing to impress on people, that causes electrolyte imbalances, plus babies aren’t getting what they need for nutrition.”

Reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story.