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Low income Ohioans are feeling the pinch of the national baby formula shortage

A drugstore in central Ohio shows empty shelves in the baby formula section.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
A drugstore in central Ohio shows empty shelves in the baby formula section.

As parents and guardians struggle through the nationwide shortage of baby formula, low income families are experiencing a particular challenge due to limits imposed by a public assistance program.

The shortage of baby formula is caused by supply chain issues and exacerbated by the February shutdown of a major baby formula supplier that discovered bacterial infections in its products.

Other plants in the U.S. have had a hard time picking up the slack. As a result, the shortage is increasing pressure on families, including those who depend on public assistance to pay for it.

Kate Yonkura, of Delaware County, is a foster mom to an eight-month-old infant who is enrolled in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, a public assistance program that helps pay for things like baby formula.

With formula in short supply, Yonkura couldn't find the formula she needed in her local grocery store. She had to drive to several places and expanded her search outside of her county to find what she needed.

“I actually found my formula that I needed. I filled my shopping cart up and when I got to the check out counter, I was not allowed to buy everything that I had in my cart,” Yonkura said.

That's because there are program limits on the formula. The WIC program only allows for seven cans of formula a month, with particular size restrictions too. And now, because formula is in short supply, the store where she was shopping was limiting the amount to five cans per shopper.

"The struggle is if you find formula you need, you really can't buy everything that your baby requires and so the frustration is real," Yonkura said.

Yonkura was able to purchase the formula she needed for her baby. But she said she worries about other parents on the program who lack the money, time or transportation to be able to do that.

In a written statement, the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) is aware of the nationwide infant formula shortage and representatives have been communicating directly with formula manufacturers. The agency said those companies assure ODH that they are working to meet the demand and address the shortage.

The WIC program is part of ODH. The agency reports that WlC leaders there have been working to gather information about the impact of the shortage, specifically on families whose babies require specialty formula. The problem is even more dire for WIC participants who have infants with medically complex needs and are on prescription formula.

The WIC program has implemented several strategies to help families during this time. That includes adding flexibility for formula choice and allowing different sized cans to be purchased for some impacted specialty formulas.

At the local level, WIC staff are working closely with impacted participants to help them secure the appropriate formula, including contacting physicians and retail outlets to problem solve and identify additional options.     

If you are impacted by the infant formula shortage, ODH recommends:

• Do not dilute your formula.

• Do not give your infant or child juice, milk, or water in place of formula.

• Do not try to make homemade formula

• Call the store to ask about product availability

• If you do not see the formula you need on the shelf, consider kindly asking a store associate for assistance.

• Consider talking to the pharmacy to ask for help if your child is on a specialized formula

• If your child is on a specialty or medical formula, call their healthcare provider to ask about adjusting their prescription to an appropriate alternative formula.

• Those participating in WIC may contact their local WIC office for assistance.

In the meantime, parents of infants in Ohio are hoping the shortage is will be resolved soon.

"Really, nothing strikes fear in the heart of a parent of an infant more than seeing empty shelves at the grocery store," Yonkura said.

Nationally, 43% of the top-selling baby formula products were out of stock as of the week ending May 8 according to Datasembly, which tracked baby formula stock at more than 11,000 stores.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.