Remember the nationwide baby formula shortage that peaked last spring? Well, I regret to inform you that the crisis is ongoing, and low-income parents and children continue to bear the brunt of it.
As The 19th News reported, the shortage seems to have fallen off the radar of most major news outlets. Still, it remains a serious obstacle for parents seeking to stock up on formula to feed their infants. Inventories have improved in many parts of the U.S., yet families in rural areas are still reporting empty store shelves and limited brand options.
Worse, low-income families who rely on government assistance to afford formula will have even fewer options as emergency waivers from the height of the shortage begin to expire. More than 60 percent of all formula in the U.S. is purchased by families on WIC, a.k.a. the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Meanwhile, just three companies — Abbott, Reckitt, and Gerber — control virtually the entire U.S. formula market.
States typically limit which brand of formula families on WIC can purchase. During the peak of the formula shortage, these constraints were lifted. But come March 1, 2023, families on WIC will only be able to purchase formula from one of the big-three manufacturers as designated by their state. And after May 1, they will no longer have the flexibility to buy larger or varied containers of formula.
With these old restrictions returning, the crisis will become even more dire for WIC participants, who are disproportionately parents of color and employed at jobs that don’t allow them to easily pump or breastfed.
The good news? There are a few potential solutions in the works. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to develop a “pathway” for international formula brands — such as Europe’s Aptamil, which came in clutch last summer — to continue supplying their products to U.S. retailers. Some states, such as California, are considering legislation that would establish a statewide formula stockpile to prevent future supply crises.
Advocates are also pushing for the shortage-related waivers for WIC participants to become permanent.
“They can’t be temporary changes because we can’t go through this again,” Jamila Taylor, president and CEO of the National WIC Organization, told The 19th News. “We saw it blow up for families and be such a challenging issue — not to mention the mental health impact that it had on moms.”
The formula shortage was caused by multiple factors, including COVID-related supply chain issues and a sizable product recall from Abbott, one of the big-three companies, in February 2022. Faced with a lack of options at brick-and-mortar stores, many parents have resorted to ordering formula online.
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