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Dispatches from a Pandemic: Desperate for baby formula, low-income mothers struggle with government’s nutritional-aid program: ‘You call the doctor’s office for your son, and they can’t help you’

For two months, Kathryn Bauerle, 21, mom of 8-month-old Laurie, has been scrambling to find baby formula.

Her town of Cleveland, Ga. immediately felt the squeeze of Abbott’s
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formula recall in February.

Relief could be coming, but parents like Bauerle probably won’t feel it for more than a month. Abbott announced Monday that it had signed a consent decree with the Food and Drug Administration that details the steps necessary to resume production at the company’s Sturgis, Mich., plant. Once the FDA confirms that Abbott has taken the initial steps outlined, Abbott expects to have the plant up and running in about two weeks, and formula should hit store shelves in six to eight weeks after that.

But even before the recall, there was a nationwide baby-formula shortage due to supply-chain issues related to the pandemic. The recall made a tough situation worse.

“We are such a small town, as soon as the formula got recalled and production stopped, we couldn’t find anything for two months,” said Bauerle.

Around the same time, she received a letter responding to her application to enroll in the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) with a local office in Cleveland. She was denied.

The program gives participants vouchers or checks every month to help pay for nutritious food, including baby formula, for low-income mothers and children.

Bauerle applied for WIC at the recommendation of her doctor, who suggested WIC could help her access baby formula. Amid the shortage, groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Infant Nutrition Council of America and government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services have been recommending WIC as a potential source of formula, but that advice has sometimes proven difficult to follow.

WIC is only open to certain income levels, and, more importantly, it’s been particularly hard hit by supply-chain issues and the Abbott recall. “More than 1.2 million infants receive formula benefits through WIC, and Abbott is the exclusive supplier for more than half of the WIC agencies nationwide,” said Brian Dittmeier, Senior Director of Public Policy at the National WIC Association.

WIC is federally funded, but states and counties operate the program on a local level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers WIC, did not reply to a request for comment.

“‘We are such a small town, as soon as the formula got recalled and production stopped, we couldn’t find anything for two months.’”

— Kathryn Bauerle, 21, mother of 8-month-old Laurie

Bauerle’s doctor suggested that she should look into WIC for help finding formula last November, so she applied. It took a few months before she heard back that she had been denied, and she did not receive an explanation about why.

After doing some research, she and her husband thought the refusal may have been related to their household income. Bauerle was pregnant with Laurie when she applied, so their household may have been counted as a two-person one.

For most states, aside from Alaska and Hawaii, participants in the WIC program cannot earn more than 185% of the federal poverty level. For a two-person household, the 2021-2022 level would be $32,227, and $40,626 for a three-person household.

Bauerle is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband works in pest control, and takes home around $33,000 a year.

“I wish that there wasn’t such a defined cutoff, I mean $30,000 a year only goes so far,” said Bauerle. For families that are “technically” living paycheck to paycheck, there should be more support, she added.

Bauerle said securing formula has turned into both a group effort with friends looking out for each other and a field trip that requires hours of driving.

The worst moments come when the uncertainty and fear of not being able to find anything kicks in, she said: “Laying in bed with my daughter, cuddling her to sleep at night, wondering if we’ll be able to find a formula for her, or worrying if she’s going to be OK.”

And this fear is growing: Bauerle is pregnant with her second child. She’s scared that if the baby-formula shortage continues, her situation will become even more dire.

After Bauerle was rejected from WIC, she talked to others who have succeeded or were already on WIC, but other moms advised her not to count on the program for help accessing baby formula, due to the nationwide shortage.

For now, Bauerle said she will need to pay out of pocket for baby formula.

She said she has heard it could take up to two months to get a WIC application approved, and because of an application backlog due to a surge of applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s taking even longer.

Kathryn Bauerle, 21, is a stay-at-home mom based in Cleveland, Georgia. Pregnant with the second child and having a 8-month-old daughter, she and her husband fear the impact of the baby-formula shortage on their family.

Courtesy of Kathryn Bauerle

It’s a Catch-22 for parents who are already on WIC: Some have reported that their baby formula benefits don’t help at all, because they couldn’t find the formula in stores.

On several public Facebook
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groups organized for parents looking for baby formula, WIC parents have complained that regardless of WIC, they are paying out-of-pocket for formula for their children, because they’re unable to make use of the benefits.

“I can’t use my WIC card, I’m paying out cash for it and I don’t know what to do anymore, ” said Kathleen Ariel, 29, a first-time mom to a 5-month-old based in Willington, Conn. Ariel wanted to breastfeed her son Jake, but said because she didn’t get the help or instruction she needed from her hospital on breastfeeding, she has used baby formula for her son. (Her hospital in Hartford, Conn. did not reply to a request for comment.)

Ariel finds it increasingly hard to find formula in her area — she is disabled and takes medicine to help her focus. She doesn’t drive, so she needs help hunting down formula. But recently the hunt has become longer and longer. It took her almost a month to find a few cans on Monday morning in a Walgreens
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in Stamford, Conn.

“Nobody is helping you. You call the doctor’s office for your son, and they can’t help you. You call WIC, and they can’t help you, and even though it says on the news to call your doctor’s office, they don’t help,” Ariel said.

WIC programs in different states instruct parents to use a mobile app to find program-approved stores and that sell formula covered by WIC. For example, New York State uses WIC2Go, and Connecticut uses WICShopper.

For Ariel to use her WIC card to find formula, she needs to check the approved stores on WICShopper — for her the app usually suggests a Walmart
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which has had nothing lately.

Kathleen Ariel, 29, first-time mother of 5-month-old son Jake, is struggling to secure baby formula even with the assistance of WIC.

Courtesy of Kathleen Ariel

One time, Ariel found a small 12.4-ounce can, but couldn’t buy it approved with a WIC payment, because was the wrong size. “They have ounces to go with different formulas,” she said.

Ariel has sent over a few screenshots of formula options on the app to MarketWatch — she printed them out so she can check what formula and size she qualifies for. Currently, there are over 20 products she’s able to buy with her WIC card, most of which are with bigger size. Ariel said the options were recently expanded.

The Abbott product recall has impacted children and parents under WIC. Similac infant formula, manufactured by Abbott, is the primary formula for numerous WIC offices.

Ryan Folks, 34, a hair stylist and mom to an 8-month old girl, is facing similar issues. Her local WIC office in Detroit, Mich. supplies Abbott baby formula. The authorized formulas for Michigan WIC programs are all Similac —- Similac Advance, Similac Sensitive and others. There are other brands such as Nutramigen or Enfamil, both made by Mead Johnson
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but they are categorized as “Special Formulas” that require medical documentation.

Folks was among the parents who suspected there might be something wrong with the Similac formulas before it got recalled. After having it, her daughter had a fever for a few days. “She was constantly vomiting the milk,” Folks said.

The FDA has published a full list of recalled brands. “Recalled products should no longer be available for sale,” it said. “But if you have these products in your home, check the lot code on the bottom of the package to determine if they are included in the recall.”

In a statement released this month, Abbott said, “Abbott conducts microbiological testing on products prior to distribution and no Abbott formula distributed to consumers tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella.”

After the recall, the WIC office Folks uses changed the formula she used from powder to concentrate. She counted the ones that are among the recalled group, and there are 16 cans out of 24 available cans that she was not eligible to use.

“I didn’t like that they didn’t have backup plans for us,” Folks said. She said the leftover cans each month could not be rolled over to the next month, and although her daughter can eat some food now, she must embark on “a field trip” to find formula. When talking to MarketWatch on Monday, she was trying to find money to buy a few cans off another person without WIC assistance.

The Biden administration last Friday urged states to allow wider formula options for WIC users amid the shortage. As Abbott has a contract with USDA, the government department on Friday asked the company to extend rebates until the end of August so that states and retailers can plan ahead and buy any products available to help with the on-going shortage. Abbott agreed.

“My child is my focus now and will always be,” Ariel said.

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