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Access to formula a long time problem in Baltimore

Infant formula at Kroger
Wikimedia Commons
Infant formula at Kroger

As a nationwide formula shortage continues to wreak havoc on families with children, some in the Baltimore area are turning to one another for help navigating the crisis.

A Facebook group called “Help Each Other Baltimore Formula Crisis” has racked up more than 250 members in less than a week. In it, people share what formula they have at home that they can donate to each other, and post photos of what stock they’ve seen at area stores.

Groups like these have been vital during the current shortage; not only for parents but for medical practitioners as well.

Kristin Topel, the Program Manager for Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Community Connection program said the hospital has been turning to social media for leads as their suppliers have been affected by the shortage, too.

“Our advocates were actually scouring social media because people were posting pictures of grocery stores where there was formula on hand and trying to get that information out.”

She said the staff at their clinics is bombarded with calls from families looking for formula every day, but they don’t have any to give.

“We used to be able to order— it was like 250 cans a month, we would have on hand— we can't even order through our suppliers any more.”

But LaToya Mobley, a social worker at the Harriet Lane Clinic in downtown Baltimore, says barriers to getting formula existed long before supply dried up earlier this month.

While there has been a huge uptick in requests for formula over the last few weeks at her clinic, which provides care to roughly 8,500 babies, kids, teens, and young adults, she said it’s far from a new issue for families that were already hit hard by the effects of COVID-19.

“The pandemic definitely became a lack of access point for many families because WIC shut down rather quickly because all of the state programs were shutting down in-person services,” Mobley said.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is the Federally funded supplemental grant program that helps infants and young children with nutritional needs.

Mobley explained enrolling in WIC can take a few weeks under ideal circumstances; when appointments were restricted in 2020 during COVID-19, wait times got longer. Then mail delays made things even worse. WIC cards weren’t arriving as fast as the babies and people couldn't buy formula without the cards.

Mobley and others at the clinic began seeing what happens to babies when their families can’t access formula.

“Babies were coming in losing weight. You know, leaving the hospital on a growth curve, and coming in eight, nine, and 10% down from their birth weight, which is not the way that they should be going,” she said. “The baby should be gaining weight,” she said.

Mobley says things reached a tipping point when Abbott Formula shuttered its Sturgis, Mich. factory in February after two infants died from contaminated formula made there.

While some people can spend time driving around looking for formula, that’s not an option for many families, Topel says. Buying formula in bulk isn’t possible, either.

Topel compared the choices her patients must make to stay afloat to a balancing act.

“Our patients are constantly deciding between how much are they going to eat themselves and make sure that they can afford the formula for their child,” she said. “They're always sort of deciding which basic necessity needs to be sacrificed.”

Amina Weiskerger is the Executive Director of ShareBaby, Inc. a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes essentials for Baltimore-area infants and children. She said geographic and economic limitations are the biggest factors when it comes to inaccessibility.

“It's really those families that don't have the financial resources, that don't have access to the larger stores, that don't have access to transportation. They can't get in the car and go to four or five different places.”

Though President Joe Biden’s administration has taken steps in the past few days to resolve the issue, a concrete fix still seems far off.

In the interim, Topel said, families are helping each other as much as they can.

Callan Tansill-Suddath is a State House Reporter for WYPR, where she covers the General Assembly.