'It takes a village': Local moms band together amid formula shortage

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
Bare formula shelves at an area Target.

The mom of two pandemic babies  — a boy, born as the world shut down in March 2020, and a girl, born in April 2021 — pandemic parenting is all Kerry Cole has known. 

Diapers and infant formula were sometimes hard to come by when her son was born, so the second time around, Cole knew to be prepared. She stocked up on the necessities before the birth of her daughter. 

Still, the current formula shortage is nothing she could have prepared for. 

“Honestly it’s terrifying,” said Cole. “We’re being very strategic, but it’s getting harder and harder.” 

At least 43% of baby formula sellers were out of stock nationwide for the week ending May 8, according to DataAssembly. Supply chain issues and a major recall have meant empty shelves and panicked parents, as moms and dads scramble to find food for their babies.

Stores that do have formula in stock are imposing strict purchase limits.

Cole spends her lunch break scouring stores’ online stock. She said she’s lucky – her daughter is on a basic formula that’s easier to come by than specialty types – but she’s still been searching within 30 minutes of her home in Sturbridge, and her work, in Springfield. 

“I feel confident that we’ll be OK for the next couple weeks, but beyond that, who knows,” she said. “We’re coming up with plans and strategies; things I never thought I’d have to think about as a mom. I’m writing down questions for my pediatrician that I never thought I’d have to ask.” 

The infant formula shortage has continued to intensify since February when Abbott, the maker of about 40 percent of the nation’s baby formula, recalled three types of powdered mix that were linked to the hospitalization of at least four babies. Two of them died. 

An Abbott plant that’s been closed since the recall is expected to reopen in the next two weeks, contingent on FDA approval, but the company announced last week that from that point, “it will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves.” 

For moms like Stephanie Carlson, of Dudley, that means at least two more months of “desperation.” Her six-month-old needs a hypoallergenic formula that was part of the recall, and now is almost impossible to find.

After having to throw out 12 recalled cans, she’s tried giving her son several other specialty formulas, but hasn’t found anything else that he can tolerate. 

“Every week we have no idea how we’ll find the next bunch,” she said. She has family and friends in Western Mass., Cape Cod, and even as far as California and Minnesota, on the lookout.

“When they said it takes a village, it really does,” she said.

On Facebook, the virtual “village” is growing by the day. Charlton mom Kristina Harper started the group “Baby Formula Hike and Seek,” which has amassed hundreds of followers in just one week.

Members post photos of formula shelves at local stores along with the date and time of the spotting. 

Harper, whose oldest child is 3 and well beyond the bottle-feeding age, said she was moved to start the group after seeing the so many local friends in a panic. 

“I saw people driving up to two hours out of state searching for formula. We can’t be everywhere all the time. Facebook is such a powerful tool and if enough people are shopping and posting pictures of what different stores have and when, it may help,” she said. 

Parents are also using social media to share and exchange formula they don’t need. 

“Half of the bottles I’ve been able to feed my son these last several months are in thanks to the other local moms, and local Facebook groups,” said Carlson. “I have received so many leads, support from other local moms that I have never met.” 

Breastfeeding moms are stepping up, too. In one town community group, a mother offered to nurse any babies in need. In the Worcester County Parents and Caregivers Facebook group, another mom offered up her stash of breastmilk. 

"I have about 12 bags of 6 oz.," she wrote. "I know it's not a lot, but does anyone know any places or people who will take it?"

Moms want to help, said Ann Marie Lindquist, director of community relations at Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast. The Newton-based milk bank, which provides pasteurized donor human milk to babies in fragile health, has seen "an enormous influx of inquiries about donating milk," she said.

While donor milk isn’t designed to replace full feeds for healthy full-term babies, Lindquist encourages potential donors to reach out. “We are asking anyone who wishes to donate milk to be patient since our phones and emails are overwhelmed right now.” 

What to do – and not do –  if you can’t find formula 

If you can’t find the formula you usually use, experts say the first thing to do is try another type or check a smaller store. All infant formula manufactured and sold in the United States needs to meet the minimum nutrient and quality standards as dictated by the Infant Formula Act of 1980. Smaller stores and pharmacies have been less affected by supply chain issues than bigger box stores like Walmart or Target. 

Food pantries may receive donations of formula and also might be able to help families in need.

But be careful where you look. The Better Business Bureau is warning of scammers posting photos of formula cans for sale on social media, accepting payments, then disappearing. And formula sold online from outside the U.S. is not FDA reviewed and could be mislabeled or counterfeit.

Whatever you do, don’t water down formula or try a homemade recipe, experts warn. 

“Diluting infant formula could result in dangerous nutrient imbalances for your baby,” said Susan Tripp, a neonatal registered dietician at UMass Memorial Medical Center. “Homemade formula recipes are not safe and can lack important nutrients for growing babies.” 

Tripp also cautioned against replacing formula with other foods or drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastmilk and infant formula as the sole source of nutrition until babies are six months, and the primary source of nutrition for the first year of life.

“If you are still having difficulty finding formula reach out to your healthcare provider who may have a small supply of formula samples for emergency situations,” said Tripp.