The infant formula shortage gripping much of the country has proved a challenge for Durango’s families and those who serve them.
Some families have been forced to drive long distances for formula, and programs such as San Juan Basin Public Health’s Women, Infants and Children have been pushed to adapt to low supplies.
“The infant formula shortage is impacting our community,” said Jenny Howell, WIC program director for the health department. “At WIC, we have been doing a bit of a juggling act to help provide infant formulas to our families since March. It started with some of the more specialty formulas for babies with allergies and it’s just gotten progressively worse. Now, we’re seeing that even the more standard formulas are in short supply.”
WIC is a federal and state program intended to help low-income families meet the nutritional needs of infants and children up to the age of 5 and their mothers. Families in the program receive a debit card they can use at grocery stores to buy formula and baby food.
Only select formulas are covered by the program, but as the formula shortage has deepened, Colorado’s state WIC office has expanded the brands and container sizes families can purchase, Howell said.
Still, it can be challenging for families in Durango to find formulas.
“Families are definitely finding that that’s been helpful, however, even in this past week, I’ve been to three of our area grocery stores that take WIC and I’m seeing some pretty empty shelves, which is definitely concerning,” Howell said.
Some Durango families have had to drive to Farmington or Pagosa Springs to find the formula they need, said Isabelle Vaughan, a family support advocate with La Plata Family Centers Coalition.
“There’s just a sense of urgency and panic and sadness with parents being worried about how they’re going to get more,” she said. “I had a family today say that they were going to do goat’s milk because they just don’t know what else to do.”
La Plata Family Centers Coalition has been a destination for families seeking formula, but the community nonprofit is having to regulate how much it can distribute with the uncertainty surrounding the availability of formula, Vaughan said.
In the search for formula, some have even turned to the Be KIND Durango Facebook page to network and find additional supplies.
As of May 28, out-of-stock rates for baby formula were 74% nationwide, according to Datasembly, a retail analytics firm, up from about 26% in mid-February.
South City Market at Town Plaza has imposed limits on the amount of formula families can buy, and Walmart was out of many of its formulas on Monday afternoon, according to its website.
“So far, I have not heard of anyone who hasn’t been able to get their hands on formula in a timely manner,” Howell said. “It just takes them having to go from one store to another (and) maybe go back to that store the next day to see if the shelves have been restocked.
“As you can imagine, if you’re a family with a limited income and small children in tow that’s a very big inconvenience and a stressor,” she said.
As families try to adapt, San Juan Basin Public Health’s WIC program and Pediatric Partners of the Southwest have fielded questions from parents seeking suggestions for changing formulas.
Pediatricians with Pediatric Partners have guided families through formula changes while also providing formula from the group’s sample supply, said Dr. Cecile Fraley in an email.
“Babies depend on breast milk or formula for the nutrients they need to grow and thrive, so it is critical to have an adequate supply of formula for non-breastfed infants,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants rely on formula or breast milk for the first six months of their lives. Switching formulas is not ideal because of the delicacy of babies’ digestive systems, Howell said, but during such an important period and with some formulas in short supply, many families in Durango are being forced to switch.
“We get phone calls pretty much daily from our WIC parents who are saying, ‘I can't find the particular type of formula that my baby’s been on. What do you suggest?’” Howell said. “We’re working through some information that we have at our fingertips that shows what other comparable products are out there that their babies should be able to transition to without issue hopefully.”
Supply chain disruptions from the pandemic and the closing of formula supplier Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan, plant spiraled to create the nationwide shortage.
The plant, the largest in the country and the producer of formula brands such as EleCare, shut down for more than three months as federal officials investigated the facility for bacterial contamination after a voluntary recall by the company.
Abbott and three other companies control about 90% of the baby formula market in the U.S.
State and federal officials have scrambled to alleviate the shortage with the Biden administration invoking the Defense Production Act and importing formula from countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
Gov. Jared Polis issued a state of emergency declaration for Colorado on May 25 to fund access to donor breast milk for families in need from Mothers’ Milk Bank in Arvada.
On Saturday, Abbott announced its Sturgis plant was reopening and restarting formula production immediately beginning with its EleCare specialty formula, which will first appear on store shelves around June 20, according to a news release.
In a May 11 news release, the company said it would take six to eight weeks before formulas find their way to shelves.
Howell said she did not know when Durango’s families would feel relief from the formula shortage, but a silver lining has been that some mothers have turned more to breastfeeding.
But until the shortage eases, it will continue to compound the anxieties of families in Durango who are also experiencing rising gas prices and inflation, Vaughan said.
“Not having enough formula, not having enough diapers, not having enough wipes – those may seem like small things to us, but those are huge stressors for families that already have a lot going on,” she said.