SAN ANTONIO — Maricella Marquez looked at the last can of formula in her kitchen on Tuesday and handed her 3-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare allergic esophageal disorder, a smaller-than-normal portion of the special food she needs to stay healthy.
Ms. Marquez has called suppliers across Texas to inquire about new shipments. “Right now they’re all out,” she said. “I am desperate.”
Ms. Marquez lives outside of San Antonio, a city with the largest formula shortages in the country — 56 percent of normal inventories were out of stock Tuesday, according to retail software company Datasembly — amid a nationwide inventory shortage that has subsided. parents rushing to feed their children.
The shortage has been challenging for families across the country, but it’s especially felt at grocery stores and food banks in San Antonio, a Latino-majority city in South Texas where many moms lack health insurance and have low-paying jobs. they have little chance of breastfeeding. All over the city, baby food aisles are nearly empty and nonprofits are working overtime to get their hands on new supplies.
The shortage became acute with a recall of a defective brand this year after at least four babies were hospitalized with a bacterial infection and at least two babies died. But the recall has been compounded by relentless supply chain problems and labor shortages. The Datasembly survey found that the national percentage of baby food sold out reached 43 percent for the week ending Sunday, up 10 percent from last month’s average.
Republicans have seized on growing fears among parents to blame President Biden, arguing that the administration has not done enough to ramp up production† On Tuesday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture alleging federal officials were overreacting.
The FDA, which is leading the federal response, said officials were working with Abbott Nutrition, the company involved in the recall, to restart production at its Sturgis, Michigan plant. The agency said it had regular meetings with various infant formula manufacturers to increase production capacity and urge retailers to consider establishing sales limits for infant formula.
“We recognize that many consumers have not had access to infant formula and medical essential foods that they are accustomed to and are frustrated by their inability to do so,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf, in a statement on Tuesday. “We do everything we can to ensure that there is enough product available where and when they need it.”
Across the country, many moms say they are rationing food for their babies as they look for more formula. Some drive for several hours, only to find more empty shelves.
Private sellers sell the prices online, cans sell for double or triple their regular price, and many major retailers are completely sold out.
Since the closure of Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility, other manufacturers have struggled to increase production quickly because their operations are focused on a steady level of consumer demand, according to Rudi Leuschner, an associate professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School.
“Some industries are very good at building up and down,” said Dr. Leuschner. “You flip a switch and they can produce ten times as much. Baby food is not such a product.”
In addition to the broader supply chain problems that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic, such as labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials, the problem could be exacerbated by panic buying, said Dr. Leuschner.
Abbott Nutrition said it was doing everything it could, including increasing production at its other plants in the US and shipping products from its facility in Ireland.
But for parents who have to feed their babies less than the food they need, even a temporary shortage is terrifying. Some parents are researching homemade infant formula recipes on the Internet, although health experts have warned that such formulas may lack essential nutrients or pose other dangers.
“We also recommend not watering down the formula, as this can lead to nutritional imbalance and cause serious problems,” said Kelly Bocanegra, program manager for the federal program for women, infants, and children in the San Antonio metro area.
At the Children’s Hospital in San Antonio, doctors are encouraging new mothers to increase the amount of milk they express and breastfeed as much as possible.
However, some cannot breastfeed due to insufficient supplies or other health problems, and health professionals said many mothers who work in fast food, retail stores or other low-paying jobs may not afford the time to breastfeed.
Parents like Ms. Marquez whose children require special diets don’t have that option either. In some cases, those parents have already struggled to afford baby food cans that can cost more than $100 each, said Elyse Bernal, the president of Any Baby Can, a nonprofit that provides access to care for children with special needs.
“It’s very scary, especially for the families who have to have a certain blend formula because they are now worried about how to feed their baby?” said Megan Sparks, one of the group’s case managers.
For Darice Browning, the shortage of specialty formulas in Oceanside, California, has been so acute that she has considered going to the emergency room to feed her youngest daughter, Octavia, Octavia, who is 10 months old and has rare genetic conditions. impossible for her to eat solid foods. The food allergies she shares with her 21-month-old sister, Tokyo, cause both babies to vomit blood when ingested with dairy proteins.
At one point, Ms. Browning said, she called all of her daughters’ doctors looking for a formula, only to be told none had.
“I was panicking, crying on the floor and my husband, Lane, came home from work and he said, ‘What’s going on?’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t feed our kids, I don’t know what to do,’ said Mrs Browning.
As of Tuesday, she had four cans of formula left over for Octavia – all on the recall list – and was trying to increase her stock with smaller rations.
Navigating the US Baby Food Shortage
A growing problem. A nationwide baby food shortage – caused in part by supply chain problems and exacerbated by a recall from baby food manufacturer Abbott Nutrition – has left parents confused and concerned. Here are some ways to deal with this uncertainty:
In Pell City, Ala., Carrie Fleming put half a scoop less formula in every bottle she makes for her 3-month-old daughter, Lennix.
Mrs. Fleming had originally tried to breastfeed Lennix but was unable to produce enough milk. Then Lennix developed severe allergic reactions to nine different dairy-based formulas: she developed a rash, cried constantly, and vomited up everything she ate. The only formula Lennix can tolerate is a hypoallergenic strain called PurAmino, which Mrs. Fleming can’t find anywhere near.
She called stores and pharmacies as far as Florida and Ohio and posted on Facebook in April begging for help. Finally, she found four small cans in a formula depot in New York for $245.
She’s trying to make those cans last three weeks instead of the normal two.
“It gets really scary,” she said.
In the small town of Richland, Georgia, where Sandra James, 36, lives, there is only one grocery store. In recent months, she has been unable to find any special baby food for her 8-month-old son, Kenson, who develops hives and loses his hair when he drinks dairy-based formulas.
First, she checked five nearby Walmarts, driving around for hours after she finished work until she found the special formula she needed. She’s sometimes gone to five or six stores a day, all the way in Alabama, before she can find a can.
Meanwhile, she gives her son more water and pureed vegetables to try and make his formula last longer.
“It’s just exhausting, very exhausting,” she said.
Parents who have tried to buy online said they have encountered not only higher prices but also scams. Two weeks ago, K-Rae Knowles, of Oregon, Illinois, sent money to a stranger in exchange for cans of a special formula she needed for her 4-month-old son, Callan. The cans never arrived, she said, and the seller’s Facebook profile was deleted a few days later.
“People are being extra careful now,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking that people prey on these kinds of shortages.”
In San Antonio, Ms. Marquez said she never thought she would rely on baby food to keep her daughter healthy at such an advanced age. But then her daughter got her diagnosis and she was told that the special formula was the only thing that would keep her out of the hospital.
Since the beginning of April, she has been supplementing her diet with fruits, vegetables, ground turkey and other vegetable proteins.
“There’s very little else she can have,” she said. “It’s not like I can give her a Happy Meal. Or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Even if it is available, the formula is expensive. After her health insurance pays 80 percent of the cost, the family still has to pay $375 a month — when the food is available. Because only her husband works as a supermarket manager, money is tight, she said.
She plans to drop by this week with samples of other products that suppliers do have in stock and test which her daughter can tolerate for the time being.
“I have no other choice,” she said. “I need it. I want her to stay healthy and stay out of the hospital.”
Ana Swanson reporting contributed.