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‘I feel like I’m failing him’: Mass. parents scramble to find formula for their infants as shortage continues

Shelves are empty as Natalia Restrepo, 29, a member of La Colaborativa, gathered formula supplies for the up-coming pantry openings in Chelsea on May 20 as the formula shortage continues.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

One night in February, Nick and Monée Vance received a series of terrifying texts from friends and family members.

Didn’t their daughter drink Similac Pro-Advance? Check out this article, they said, sending links to the news that the formula had been recalled.

The Vances had already spent most of their then-six-month-old daughter’s infancy scrambling to find formula amid a shortage caused by pandemic-related supply chain issues. When loved ones flooded their phones with articles announcing the infant milk recall, the young couple panicked. At first, they weren’t sure whether the liquid formula they’d already fed her was a part of the announcement. It wasn’t, but the emergency boxes of formula powder in their pantry were among those being recalled.

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And then, as the Vances feared, the shuttering of an Abbott Laboratories plant in Michigan, amid an investigation of suspected foodborne illness, made formula even tougher to find. In Massachusetts, some parents are driving across state lines to find supplies. They’re scouring the Internet for support and hoping their small stash will last them through the chaos.

The Vances have driven across the Commonwealth, scoured Amazon to no avail, and relied on loved ones to help them buy formula.

“You almost feel like you won the World Series when you find it,” Nick Vance said.

Amid increased scrutiny over its handling of the crisis, President Biden announced Wednesday night he would invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of baby formula and authorized Defense Department flights to import formula from overseas. The US House on Wednesday also approved a $28 million emergency spending bill to help ease the crisis, mainly by boosting funding for FDA inspections of formula suppliers, as well as legislation that would allow participants in the WIC program for low-income families the flexibility to use vouchers for formula made by a wider array of manufacturers, rather than having to stick with a single brand. The Massachusetts delegation, in a letter Tuesday, also pressed Abbott for clarity on when stocks would be replenished.

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But it will probably take weeks for the crisis to ease, which means parents will be scrambling for some time. Some Massachusetts residents have tried to help on Facebook by building “formula fairy” Facebook groups and offering their own breast milk to those in need. Swampscott resident Keiko Zoll has crafted a national mutual aid website for people offering and seeking infant milk.

Baby formula is a manufactured liquid or powder food designed to meet infants’ nutritional needs. It’s a crucial resource for parents who can’t lactate, don’t produce enough breast milk to meet their children’s needs, or simply choose not to.

The situation is especially acute for parents rearing infants with milk, gluten, and other allergies, who require special formulas that are particularly scarce.

On May 9, Mary Lowder of Sherborn grew worried when her 3-month-old son, James, began eating less and having bouts of diarrhea. James’s doctor said he’d developed a allergy to Enfamil NeuroPro and advised her to switch to a hypoallergenic formula.

Lowder said the need to track down a more expensive and uncommon product amid a general formula shortage terrified her.

“There’s already a shortage,” Lowder said. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to find this formula?’ ”

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After stopping by a CVS Pharmacy in Holliston to find hypoallergenic formula, an employee told her they only had expired cans. By the time she visited a Walgreens in Ashland and saw no hypoallergenic formula on the shelves, Lowder was in tears.

“It felt like I was failing him,” Lowder said.

The shortage has intensified the stress that first-time parents already face raising an infant. A month after taking their daughter home from the hospital, the Vances found themselves down to just three, two-ounce Similac bottles. They would feed her the moment they found more formula.

“We figured we’d be able to find it,” Nick said. “We’ve never done this before.”

Nick Vance said he looks forward to the day his 9-month-old daughter can take whole milk; pediatricians generally recommend waiting until a child’s first birthday. Because she’s older, she can drink 32 ounces of liquid formula in one day.

“Without Similac, she’d be starving,” he said.

He said the couple has decided to put plans for another baby on hold until the crisis eases.

“Do we want to go through another 10, 11 months hunting for Similac?” he said. “This should be the last thing I’m worried about.”

Part of the reason Similac formula is also hard to come by nowadays is because it’s included in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. WIC gives states federal grants to distribute healthy foods to low-income families. In Massachusetts, users can receive certain Similac products, making demand for those products even higher. If they can’t get Similac at a store that accepts WIC, they must choose between paying out-of-pocket elsewhere or finding an alternative.

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WIC users make up most of Dr. Adetokunbo Olotu’s pediatric patients at the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. Olotu said more emphasis should be made on assisting patients like hers, who may not have the same resources as others to track down supplies.

“Some people don’t have cars to drive far and get formula; some people don’t have friends out-of-state to mail them formula,” Olotu said. “For some people, all they have is WIC.”

As Olotu shared the “anxiety-inducing” challenges of meeting her patients’ needs amid the shortage in a phone conversation with a reporter, a medical assistant knocked on her door. A patient had come in crying because she had run out of formula, the pediatrician said.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” Olotu said.

Last week, there was little infant milk to be found in stores around Boston. At Target in the South Bay Shopping Plaza on Tuesday evening, shelves normally reserved for infant formula were nearly bare, except for a few cans of toddler milk, electrolyte drinks, and hypoallergenic formula.

Among the frustrated shoppers was Dorchester resident Abrianna James. James, 20, sought Similac for her 2-month-old daughter, Legacy, because WIC only covered that specific brand. This was the third store she and her family had visited that day without luck, she said.

“I was about to grab these ones, but they’re for toddlers,” James said, gesturing to the remaining cans.

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James’s grandmother browsed the grocery aisles and returned with a whole milk powder blend meant for older children. In Spanish, James and her aunt explained that Legacy was too young.

“If there’s none in the stores, what will we give our babies?” James said.

Eileen Russell of South Boston, 32, also had no luck at the South Bay Target. Her family back in Ireland shipped some infant milk to combat the US shortage. But earlier that day, her doctor said her 10-month-old daughter, Harper, developed a lactose allergy and needs to switch to soy-based formula.

“I’m back to square one,” she said.


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.