This article was written by BenitoLink intern Marisa Sachau
For local families, the nationwide baby formula shortage is not just about searching for product in stores. It’s also about searching for specialized formulas required for some babies, pumping more and increasing breast milk supply, and looking to family and friends to help find formula.
Following Abbott Laboratories’ June 13 announcement that it will be shipping 1.1 million pounds of powdered baby formula during the summer, the company’s factory was shut down again after flooding from a storm overwhelmed their water systems in Sturgis, Michigan.
The baby formula recall resulted from an FDA probe into the deaths of two infants from bacterial infections allegedly found in the formula. The investigation abruptly shut down the Abbott Laboratories plant in Sturgis, Michigan, on March 22.
Mothers, babies and families in San Benito County have been affected by the shortage. Jen, the mother of a one-year-old boy, told BenitoLink she was forced to use a different kind of formula. This was not so easy, as her baby requires a sensitive formula.
“We switched him to one that wasn’t a sensitive formula because it was easier to find and I believe it started to upset his stomach,” she said. “It has been difficult for him to sleep through the night.”
Even now, Jen’s husband has had a hard time finding a sensitive formula for the baby to have. She noted that her husband buys the formula at Costco or Target in San Jose rather than from a store in San Benito County.
Rosa Vivian Fernandez, president and CEO of the San Benito Health Foundation, discussed the importance of the Women, Infants & Children program (WIC) and how her foundation has been working to help families obtain baby formula from WIC vendors, specifically local ones such as Hollister Super and Windmill Market. Fernandez said she believes that San Benito families have fared better than those in other metropolitan areas because local vendors are limiting how many cans of baby formula can be purchased at one time, in an effort to achieve equitable distribution.
“If anything, I would say our area has been saved, considering that we did not have the shortages that hit the metropolitan areas first,” Fernandez said.
Local retailers can buy through a variety of sources, Fernández said, so it’s been easier for them to resupply, compared to grocery store chains that have fewer suppliers. This has been the case for stores such as Hollister Super and Windmill Market.
“Through the proactive efforts of Chang So [owner of Hollister Super and the Windmill Market] and his staff, we’ve been able to ensure our WIC participants have access to formula.”
So is a BenitoLink board member.
According to Fernandez, local grocers can also influence the market much more quickly than a grocery chain will.
“Through the WIC program, about 18% of mothers breastfeed,” she said. BenitoLink followed up with Fernandez to clarify if this includes mothers who also feed their babies formula but has not received a response.
Therapeutic milks are also in short supply. These are ones that pediatricians give to mothers and babies to help figure out the best supplement to prescribe, Fernández said. Dr. Yazmin Gomez, a pediatrician at the San Benito Health Foundation, has been working with WIC participants to provide them with the right therapeutic milk formulation.
Leslie DeVillires, a mother of two, had her second child in May. Because she was aware of the shortage before she gave birth, she stocked up when the opportunity arose. “I grew a stash before I gave birth,” she said. “Always on the lookout for formula and buying what the limit was for any particular store.”
DeVillires was not alone, as she had the support of family members who also purchased formula for her. In addition to using formula, she pumps as much breast milk as she can.
Rocio Ramirez, a mother of a four-month baby, does not predominantly use formula but does keep some on hand just in case her supply of breast milk drops. She buys Earth Best Organic Formula, which she can sometimes find in town.
“I usually go in person and find it, but I haven’t seen it lately, so I’m trying to see if I can order it,” Ramirez said.
Czarina Bowers has been a certified lactation consultant for five years and a birth and postpartum doula for about 10 years at Silicon Valley Doulas. She chose this career when she saw there were no lactation support groups in the community and breastfeeding rates were low.
Bowers started a support group in 2014 families’ homes and eventually moved the meetings to Hazel Hawkins Hospital.
“It was a fantastic leap forward, and since then the hospital has been working towards ‘Baby Friendly’ designation, which means that the hospital helps families to initiate breastfeeding through policy change and staff training.”
Bowers helps families when they first arrive home with breastfeeding cues and working through the challenges that come with breastfeeding.
Because of the formula shortage, Bowers said her clients have been more motivated to breastfeed. “Unfortunately, much of that current motivation is coming from fear and anxieties about not being able to feed their babies,” she said.
Families experience stress when the specialized formulas they need are not available and they must rely instead on alternatives that may not fit the baby’s needs.
Bowers said, “some clients are feeling it’s difficult to trust the safety of formula that is available after hearing about the conditions in the factory that was shut down, including workers not washing hands, and the building conditions that led to bacterial contamination.”
As a lactation counselor, Bowers is worried that this will only cause more stress for the parents and families. Depression and anxiety can affect a baby’s development and the emotional health of the family unit.
For families struggling with formula, Bowers suggests “enlisting the support of friends and family. Send a photo of the brand(s) that your baby drinks to your friends and family and ask them to pick up a bottle or can, if they see it at the store. And on the flip side, please resist the temptation to stock up. Having 10 cans of formula in the pantry may bring a sense of security for one family, but another family may not have any.”
Bowers noted that donor milk is another option for families that are looking for an alternative to formula. A mother herself, Bowers knows the difficulty of having low milk supply and doing a combination of bottle feeding and breastfeeding.
She also urged families to reach out for support if they are struggling.
Safeway and Hollister Super currently have a limit of buying five cans of baby formula per customer. Whereas Nob Hill and Target limit four per customer. Lucky as of June 16 has a limit of 2 cans per customer if in stock.
The California Department of Public Health also provides a number of resources here.
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