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How bad is the baby formula shortage? A Rochester mom had to get help from her international family

baby formula 1.jpg
Max Schulte
Quinn, five months old, gets a kiss from her mom while taking a break from eating. Jenn Beideman has had trouble finding formula for her baby, who needs a specific brand for her digestion. Jenn cant breast feed due to a medical condition.

It’s snack time in Jenn Beideman’s Rochester home, and that means one thing -- her 5-month-old daughter, Quinn, is expecting her bottle.

“She’s a formula machine,” Beideman joked as she fed her baby. “She eats around 30 ounces of formula a day, and as she grows, she just needs to eat more.”

Beideman said while she now has enough formula to keep up with Quinn, a few weeks ago, the first-time mom was panicking.

“We couldn't find her formula anywhere, and we realized we were on the last can,” she said.

It’s an experience that many parents across the nation are growing all too familiar with.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in five babies is fed with some kind of formula in the first two days of being born. But a nationwide formula shortage began in February when Abbott Nutrition, the largest formula plant in the United States, closed because of contamination problems.

Earth'S Best Organic Infant Formula can sits empty at supermarket as a result of nationwide baby formula shortage - San Jose, California, USA - 2022
Earth's Best Organic Infant Formula can sits empty at supermarket as a result of nationwide baby formula shortage - San Jose, California, USA - 2022

The shutdown has left bare store shelves that were once fully stocked with formula. Go-to internet retailers also have limited to no inventory.

It’s a scary moment for parents.

Beideman, who has a medical condition that doesn’t allow her to produce sufficient amounts of breast milk, said feeding your child should never be an issue.

“No one should be in this position. No one should have to worry about how to feed their child, period,” she said.

Luckily for Beideman, she has a network, including family in Canada, which has been able to support her during this time. She encourages other parents to consider doing the same.

“Reach out to your village,” she advised. “Get your friend of a friend of a friend to look in places where you can't get … we can get through it.”

Baby Formula 2.jpg
Max Schulte
Jenn Beideman and her daughter Quinn, five months old, with a box of baby formula that was sent to their home in Rochester by an out of state friend. Beideman has had trouble finding the brand of formula Quinn eats and has reached out to friends and family to look on store shelves around the country and in Canada.

For lower-income mothers who rely on government assistance programs such as WIC for their food supplies, the struggle can be even scarier.

Of the 4,000 families that Jordan Health serves, about a quarter of them are enlisted in the formula program.

“There's just so much going on,” said Keri Santos, Jordan Health’s WIC program manager.

She said she and her team spend most of their days answering calls from frantic mothers, calling vendors to do formula checks, and often switching clients to formulas that are available.

“Kids don't always tolerate the formula when you switch them,” Santos said. “Parents are just frustrated.”

Santos said some parents are even making their own formula – but that can be risky.

“Some of those might be great, and some might not include breast milk or formula, which is what the baby needs for their first year of life, and that's a little scary,” Santos said

In the beginning months of the shortage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a statement advising parents against homemade formula. The agency cited reports that infants who were fed homemade formula were being hospitalized with low calcium levels.

Babby Formula 4.jpg
Max Schulte
Quinn gets a bottle from her dad after coming home from daycare. Jenn Beideman has had trouble finding formula for Quinn, who uses a specific brand for her digestion. Jenn can not breast feed due to a medical condition.

Santos said alternatives like milk from cows or goats are only safe after a child turns one. She said despite the uncertainty of the times, she wants to assure her clients that the department will do everything it can to meet their needs. She just asks that parents don’t wait until their supply is too low.

“It's easier for us to help when we have a little bit more time,” she said.

In wake of the shortage, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act.

Biden said this act will force suppliers to prioritize infant formula manufacturers over other customers.

“I've directed my team to do everything possible to ensure there's enough safe baby formula, and that is quickly reaching families needed the most,” Biden said.

The president also announced Operation Fly Formula, under which the U.S. has been sending planes overseas to pick up supplies of infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards.

Abbott recently reached a preliminary agreement with the FDA to restart formula production pending safety upgrades and certifications. It’s expected that once the plant reopens, it could take up to two months to fully meet demand.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.