ARLINGTON – A nationwide infant formula shortage sent parents scrambling this spring, with many turning to online networks or enlisting family and friends to scour grocery store shelves.
Since then, the crisis has eased, but formula supply remains tight and many products expensive.
On Thursday, U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, met with leaders of Snohomish County food banks and nonprofits, as well as local parents, to talk about these ongoing challenges at the Volunteers of America Western Washington distribution center.
DelBene pointed to two bills passed by Congress to increase formula supply and affordability. The first law removed temporary tariffs on safely imported formula, with the goal of reducing costs for families, DelBene said. The second bill suspended tariffs on basic powders used to make baby formula.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure that we’re not only restocking shelves, but also providing that assurance that they’re going to be filled,” DelBene said.
The national formula out-of-stock rate fell to 61% in August, down from 86% in May, DelBene said. In Washington, the rate was 67% in August.
Carla Rankin, executive director of the Arlington Food Bank, said formula availability has improved.
“It’s not as much as we’d like, but it’s a bit more,” he said.
For many, cost remains a concern.
Conrada, a mother of three from Granite Falls, shared her challenges in finding baby formula. She had to stop breastfeeding several months ago due to a medical issue, she said in Spanish through a translator. She asked to be identified by her first name only to protect her privacy.
Sofia Altuve, with Snohomish County Human Services, said she initially gave Conrada formula donated by another family. When supplies ran out, the mother went to buy her own. She needed a formula called Similac Advance for her 2 month old son.
“She’s struggling because it’s expensive,” Altuve said. It costs almost $20 for a small tin, which lasts about three days.
Dean Johnson, director of hunger prevention operations with Volunteers of America, said the price of the non-profit formula to buy has increased 25% in the last eight months.
It can be difficult for babies to switch formulas. For high-risk babies, such as those with allergies or who are premature, it may not be an option at all.
“Specialty formulas have been some of the slowest to come back,” said Rebecca Mauldin, director of development and communications with ChildStrive, a nonprofit serving Snohomish and King counties.
The formula shortage became acute this spring after Abbott Nutrition shut down a major manufacturing plant in February due to contamination. Abbott, which makes brands including Similac, restarted its Michigan plant in June, but had to close it again temporarily due to severe flooding.
The effects of the plant closings reverberated across the country, including in Snohomish County. Rankin, with the Arlington Food Bank, said the shortage has hit families who were already struggling especially hard.
She shared the story of two clients who had 9 to 10 month old babies. One was unable to breastfeed, and the other had to supplement with formula. Both mothers had to switch to whole milk due to the shortage of formula. Health authorities do not recommend cow’s milk for children under 1, due to medical risks.
“It was a very traumatic decision for them to make,” Rankin said.
Malia Mullen, executive director of Nutrition First, said the state Department of Health took an important step when it expanded the approved formulas for clients in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
A challenge, however, is that only a few manufacturers control the infant formula supply.
“This monopoly on certain formulas is a huge part of what caused the crisis,” Mullen said.
DelBene said long-term solutions include boosting domestic manufacturing capacity.
Just on Wednesday, Abbott’s CEO announced a new $500 million US factory for infant formula.
Jacqueline Allison: 425-339-3434; [email protected]; Twitter: @jacq_allison.