Baby formula remains scarce despite efforts to boost supply

The nationwide baby formula shortage is now in its sixth month. Despite tons of imports and domestic production rebounding, formula supplies are still low for parents across the United States. Amna Nawaz reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nationwide baby formula shortage is now in its sixth month. Despite tons of imports and domestic production rebounding, formula supplies are still low for parents across the United States.

    Amna Nawaz reports.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Early morning under a hot Texas sun, and the line at this drive-through food pantry in South Austin is already dozens of cars' long. Alongside the usual plastic bags of fresh food, baby formula.

    Paige Gutierrez came early to find formula for her 9-month-old.

  • Paige Gutierrez, Mother:

    I mean, it's amazing. Even though it is only one can, I mean, it helps.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Teresa Satterwhite fosters four babies, all of whom need formula. The few cans she received today she called a blessing.

  • Teresa Satterwhite, Foster Parent:

    It's been really, really hard to find formula. And it does get frustrating. It does get overwhelming.

  • Luis Garcia, El Buen Samaritano:

    I think the demand that we have seen in the last couple of weeks, it's been increasing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Luis Garcia works at El Buen Samaritano, the organization that runs the pantry. They joined forces with other Austin nonprofits to source formula because of the surge in demand from clients who couldn't find or afford formula in stores.

  • Luis Garcia:

    We have seen a lot of new families coming in that's not necessarily were our clients before just because of the formula.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But those food pantries aren't much help for Connie Bunch, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom. Seven-month-old Aiden (ph) has severe milk allergies and relies on specialty soy formula, harder to find in normal times, near impossible when store supplies dwindled.

    Tell me about the moment you realized there was a shortage.

  • Connie Bunch, Mother:

    I walked into a store and it was not, like, scarce. It was not thin. It was bare. I went to another store, and it looked the same way. I went to another store, and it looked the same way.

    After three stores, I was in full-blown two years and just, like, panicking, because they can't have anything but formula.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bunch's father, nearly 200 miles away in Fort Worth, spent hours driving store to store, cobbling together a few months' supply for his grandson. Bunch says she's now down to a few weeks' worth of formula.

  • Connie Bunch:

    I did not think that this would last as long as it has.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In February, formula maker Abbott shut down its largest plant after possible contamination and recalled several products. The plant produced about a quarter of all baby formula made in the U.S. And while it reopened on July 1, after further delays from flooding, stock levels haven't yet rebounded, the latest data showing they were at their lowest since the shortage began.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Today, I'm proud to say that, because of these flights, high-quality formula is already on the way to American shells.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Biden administration has taken a number of steps to respond to the crisis, including starting Operation Fly Formula, since May, airlifting in the equivalent of 61 million eight-ounce bottles from abroad, enough to meet about one week of domestic demand.

    Among the hardest hit in the shortage, low-income families, many of whom are eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children, a federally funded benefits program known as WIC.

    Zoe Neuberger, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: WIC serves more than 40 percent of all the babies born in the U.S. and purchases more than half of the formula consumed. So it's a very big player in this space.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zoe Neuberger is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

  • Zoe Neuberger:

    Changes to WIC must be designed carefully so, that eligible families won't be turned away, because WIC has been a lifeline that allows low-income families to get formula and other foods that they need.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since 1989, states have sourced baby formula for their WIC programs through a competitive bidding process. The formula company with the lowest bid then becomes the sole provider of regular infant formula for WIC participants in that state.

    Today, just three manufacturers receive all WIC contracts in the U.S., and Abbott is the sole provider across 35 states. This system saves WIC between $1 billion and $2 billion a year.

  • Jessica Scharfenberg, Healthfirst:

    I would absolutely love to see that we could contract within the states with more than one formula manufacturer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jessica Scharfenberg runs a local WIC agency serving four counties in Wisconsin, a state which contracts with Abbott.

    Scharfenberg says that, although Wisconsin received a waiver allowing WIC participants to buy other formula brands in the shortage, that offered brief relief, before shelves emptied of all formula options.

  • Jessica Scharfenberg:

    Maybe a state could contract with four or five different formula companies vs. the just one, because then we would have more variety and more accessibility on the shelves, so, if a recall were to happen, because we know it'll happen again sometime in the future, it's just inevitable, that we don't get to this place again of we have just don't have formula.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As supplies dwindled earlier this year, parents and caregivers turned to each other to help feed their babies.

  • Hannah Kroll, Mother:

    It sort of blossomed into this amazing thing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hannah Kroll is a nurse in New York City who took a break from work to raise 1-year-old Eliana (ph), who is formula-fed.

    In late May, she started a national Facebook group for parents to trade baby formula after receiving help from family and friends around the country. Kroll has also started a baby formula bank, using donations for those in need, and has shipped free containers to over 130 families across the country.

  • Hannah Kroll:

    I am a Jewish girl living in Manhattan. I'm connecting with these amazing women in South Dakota, in Mississippi, in Hawaii who I don't think I would ever have had any other opportunity to connect with.

    And everybody is just grateful for the others who are helping out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, she says, parents shouldn't have to turn to social media and risk being scammed to find formula.

  • Hannah Kroll:

    We'd be horrified if we found out that a family member were turning to social media channels to get their medication, to get their medical care.

    But we are sort of turning a blind eye as a community to the fact that this is how parents are being forced to feed their kids, their babies.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Back in Austin, Connie Bunch is still baffled that, after months, this hasn't been solved.

  • Connie Bunch:

    It's amazing to me. The things that are really, really important to us, we come up with solutions so fast. And I do not understand why this is not important. There are children whose lives are on the line.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This specialty soy formula, she says, is even harder to find today than a few weeks ago. For now, she will continue to rely on family and friends to keep Aiden fed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

Listen to this Segment