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HEALTH

Watch now: Central Illinois parents struggle to find baby formula amid national shortage

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BLOOMINGTON — Parents across Central Illinois are taking different strategies in their quest for infant formula as a nationwide shortage persists.

“Divide and conquer,” said Nicole Damm, of Mason City.

Her daughter, Seeley, turns 1 this month, but since she was born more than 15 weeks premature, her “corrected age” is closer to 8 months and her formula needs are greater than average.

“She has to have a certain kind of formula because she was premature and she’s actually on more calories than most babies take, so she has to use more formula than most,” Damm said.

Keeping Seeley in stock with her hypoallergenic formula powder, Nutramigen, has been a group effort.

“Luckily I had family members and friends help me stock up so it would last her for a month or two, and then we’ll probably do the same thing again when we get lower on formula,” Damm said.

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The shelves in the infant formula section at Jewel Osco, 2203 E. Oakland Ave. in Bloomington, were nearly bare Friday.

Ashley Ott and her 6-month-old daughter Rey are relentless in monitoring Bloomington-Normal stores, in the hopes of finding the formula they need.

“One time I went everywhere — I went to Target, Walmart, Hy-Vee, Meijer — and nobody had it,” said Ott, who also feeds her daughter Nutramigen.

With one 12.6-ounce can left at home, Ott, a Bloomington resident, checked the Meijer website first thing in the morning the following day and found it in stock.

“I went there and they were like, ‘we don’t have any,’ and I was like, ‘well, it says you guys do,’” she said. “I found somebody (who said) it just came in on our truck. She went back and got it for me and brought it out for me.”

Parents say they've had a difficult time consistently finding their child’s formula for months, as pandemic-related supply chain issues stretch inventory thin at pharmacies and supermarkets. A voluntary recall in February by Abbott Nutrition, parent company of Similac, amplified the issues, causing some families to seek an equivalent formula from a different brand.

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A recall at Abbott Nutrition, parent company of Similac, has left baby formula shelves nearly empty.

Abbott Nutrition, the manufacturer of products currently under recall, alone controls around 40% of the infant formula market,” according to a letter eight Democrat senators sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday, calling for an antitrust review. “This level of concentration has created a fragile system unable to adequately respond to shocks in the supply chain. Unfortunately, this puts our most vulnerable populations at risk, and disproportionately impacts low-income families who rely on programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).”

Federal officials said this week the Food and Drug Administration is working to increase the U.S. manufacturers’ output.

In a statement Wednesday, Abbott said production could restart at the manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, within two weeks of securing approval from the FDA, after which it would take six to eight weeks for products to return to shelves.

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The shelves of the infant formula section at Walmart, 2225 W. Market St. in Bloomington, were nearly empty Friday.

It’s not clear, however, exactly when the FDA will give Abbott a green light to restart production at the facility.

The FDA said Thursday it recognizes consumers are frustrated that they can’t find many types of formula, and the agency is “doing everything in its power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it.”

The Biden Administration also is taking steps to widen benefits through WIC, a federal program similar to food stamps that serves mothers and children. About half of infant formula in the U.S. is purchased by WIC participants, so the Department of Agriculture is “urging states to allow WIC recipients to use their WIC benefits on a wider variety of products so that if certain sizes or types of formula are out of stock, they can use their benefits on those that are in stock,” according to a White House statement.

Nationwide, about 40% of large retail stores are out of stock, up from 31% in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. More than half of U.S. states are seeing out-of-stock rates between 40% and 50%, according to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations.

Mary Colby, WIC coordinator for the McLean County Health Department, said WIC participants began to report difficulty finding their powder formula and retailers began limiting the quantity of formula purchases in March, with “some ups and downs” in availability depending on the week.

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A shortage of infant formula has caused many retailers, including Walmart on Market Street in Bloomington, to implement purchase limits, as seen Friday.

The health department is advising parents to shop early in the day and early in the week, avoiding the busier weekends; to find out when stores’ shipments come in throughout the week; and to “talk to their doctor about potentially switching to a different formula that’s more readily available or even switching to a liquid concentrate,” Colby said.

Tara Ingham, executive director of the Midwest Food Bank, said because of strict expiry dates, food banks typically aren’t offered loads of infant formula to distribute.

Other food products’ sell-by dates mark peak freshness, but Midwest Food Bank can still distribute them under its salvage license.

“But infant formula, you absolutely cannot because it could lose some of its potency and some of its nutritional profile and you have to be super careful about it,” Ingham said.

And even if sell-by dates weren’t an issue, “manufacturers don’t have enough to put on the shelves, so they certainly don’t have enough to donate above and beyond to food banks,” she said.

The Pregnancy Resource Centers in Bloomington and Lincoln get some donated baby formula to distribute to women in their programs, but Director Ellen Orns said while they’ve had a few calls, the centers are not a steady source for formula, either.

The Center for Youth and Family Solutions, which has two offices in Bloomington, is taking donations of infant formula to distribute.

Tamara Woodard, an employee at the 603 N. Center St. office, said, “I have noticed an increase in interest because of the shortage,” fielding more calls about formula than usual.

Colby said with lactation counselors and consultants available at the health department, they’re also encouraging new mothers to increase their breastfeeding if possible, and encouraging pregnant mothers to consider breastfeeding.

“We have a lot of breastfeeding support here and during this time of uncertainty with the formula, that really is a good choice for parents to make,” Colby said. MCHD’s maternal child health division resources are available online or by calling 309-888-5457.

Of course, breastfeeding is not an option for all parents, and some parents have gotten desperate.

Ott said she’s seen on social media that Canada and European countries aren’t facing the same shortage, but FDA warns against buying imported formula online because it could be counterfeit.

Pediatricians and health care professionals also warn against watering down formula to stretch their supply or trying homemade formula recipes.

“It can be really harmful,” Colby said. “We’re also not encouraging use of cow’s milk, goat’s milk or other milk alternatives at least until age 1. Those don’t contain the nutrients needed during that rapid growth timeframe.”

She also noted infants’ gastrointestinal systems cannot digest those types of milk until they’re older, so “it can be very harmful.”

Ott said her daughter’s gastrointestinal doctor has Rey taking Nutramigen because it contains less lactose than other formulas, and though it’s been more difficult to find, the doctor has helped to provide her with some.

Still, she and Damm both said they keep their eyes open constantly, always anticipating when they will need more.

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The shelves of the infant formula section at Walmart, 2225 W. Market St. in Bloomington, were nearly empty Friday.

In a Facebook group called “We’re all in this together, Bloomington/Normal!” Ott made a post asking the community to help each other find the formula they need.

“I knew I was having a problem. … and I see how other people in other states are struggling and I’m like, I might as well, because there’s a lot of low-income families in town, might as well see” how locals could help each other, Ott said. “Enfamil sends out samples and you get three or four different types of formula in the samples. I know I didn’t use all of them, so I thought if people got those they could offer them to people.”

The post garnered more than 80 comments with people sharing what they could spare, where certain formulas could be found and asking for help.

But with social media discussion comes unsolicited advice.

“A lot of people are saying stuff like, ‘Well just give them a different type of formula,’” Damm said. “Most of these babies are on a specific type of formula because either they’re allergic to cow’s milk or because they were premature and they need a certain formula. Someone saying, ‘Just give them a different formula’ doesn’t help. You’re not a doctor; you can’t tell them what to do.”

Instead, she asked that people be courteous and help if and when they can.

The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.

Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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