I know it takes a village to raise a baby, but I never thought it would take a village to feed my baby.
I gave birth to my first child — a sweet baby girl named Madeline — on Feb. 7, 2022. That month, Abbott Nutrition — the nation’s largest baby formula manufacturer — issued a recall for several formulas and closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan.
I was too sleep-deprived and consumed with Madeline’s eat-sleep-diaper change (and repeat) cycle to pay attention to the news, let alone find time to shower. In hindsight, as a mom who fed her baby a special hypoallergenic formula — since several others we tried did not agree with her — I should have been more on alert.
My husband, Jake, and I typically ordered premade bottles of Nutramigen off Amazon. At some point in March, Amazon limited orders to six bottles per day. We didn’t think much of it and figured we’d order a box every few days. Plus, it was a little more expensive, but we could find the bottles on CVS shelves.
But that all changed when Amazon listed our formula, and many others, as out of stock.
We did a frantic online search for Nutramigen at Target, Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, you name it. My stomach dropped when every search turned up: “out of stock.”
Panicked, Jake woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning to search local stores. At Target, he met a mom who broke down in the empty baby formula aisle. She also couldn’t find her baby’s food.
Not sure what to do, he called our pediatrician’s office. They directed him to a local CVS where the nurse said an Enfamil rep hid some cans for her patients. Sure enough, Jake found a few cans hidden under the empty shelves.
Meanwhile, I was at home with the baby in one hand and my phone in the other, putting a call out for friends and family to keep their eyes peeled for the formula with a name no one could pronounce. (One relative referred to it as “Vitameatavegamin” from the popular I Love Lucy episode.).
A friend posted in a local free exchange Facebook group for me, and within minutes, two moms in Troy offered three unopened cans of powder. They left them on their porch for me. Grateful for their kindness, I left them flowers in return.
My aunt in West Bloomfield joined the scavenger hunt and snagged three bottles and two cans after stopping at a dozen pharmacies and markets. She reported one can was sealed in a CVS lockbox, as if it were diamonds someone would steal.
My other aunt and uncle scoured their retirement community in Florida and scored a few cans and bottles after 10 stops. My mother-in-law’s friends searched Detroit’s East Side at 6 a.m. When one found two bottles at a Meijer, he asked the clerk to take his picture and held the bottles up like trophies.
I sighed with relief when we tallied everyone’s findings over two days and estimated we could feed Madeline for at least a month — but it comes at a cost.
The formula shortage caused prices to surge, and a 12-ounce can was anywhere from $32 to $43. One can is enough for two to three days of feedings. Meanwhile, the 32-ounce bottled liquid my baby prefers is around $14, and she can down one of those a day.
My heart goes out to families who cannot afford these prices. I connected with one mom in a Facebook group, “Moms helping moms: formula shortage donations.” She has a 4-month-old girl who’s also on Nutramigen due to allergies. The mom is part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a government program that serves low-income women and children who are at nutritional risk.
She posted that she couldn’t afford the formula even if it was in stock online, and she couldn’t find it anywhere near her home in Kentucky. I took the cans I got from the Troy porches and popped them in the mail to her.
Affordability is a big issue, but more concerning is starvation. My mother-in-law stopped at a local Meijer, where she saw a woman with a screaming, hungry baby. The woman was also in tears as she stared at the bare shelves, unable to find her baby’s specialized food.
This puts the pandemic toilet paper freak-out to shame. In this case, young lives are at stake.
The New York Times reported that the national out-of-stock rate for baby formula reached 43% the first week of May.
In mid-May, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act, which aims to boost domestic formula production. He also ordered the use of defense aircrafts to pick up formula from overseas.
Meanwhile, Abbott announced that it reached an agreement with the FDA to reopen the Sturgis plant, but it could take another eight weeks for formula to reach store shelves.
Hungry babies cannot wait that long.
Stephanie Steinberg is the founder of The Detroit Writing Room and a freelance journalist based in Metro Detroit.
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