Searching for rare formula is worse for rural families on WIC – Duluth News Tribune


CANNON FALLS, Minnesota — Two months after giving birth, Jennifer Magee noticed a change in her baby’s feeding routine that frightened her: She was starting to drink more formula, almost every hour.

An increased appetite is normal for growing infants, including Magee’s daughter, Aubrey. But amid the national formula shortage, Magee, 25, was down to just one container, barely enough to last three days.

“We’re flying through the formula,” Magee said as the shortage worsened in May. “I’m afraid that very soon, if we don’t stock up, we won’t have it for her.”

Finding more would not be a simple task.

Magee faced the same strain that many parents have faced over the past few months as they race to find formula. But she has felt added pressure because she relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC – a federally funded initiative designed to help low-income women to buy food, including infant formula.

Her daughter was born in March, long after pandemic-related supply chain issues began affecting formula availability, and just weeks after baby food maker Abbott Nutrition halted production of its Michigan plant and recalled its Similac, Similac Alimentum and EleCare powder formulas. , further disrupting supply. In May, Dr. Robert Califf, head of the FDA, told senators he expected the shortage to resolve by the end of July. In June, the agency was still importing formulas to increase supply.

For Magee and other parents who live near state lines, especially those in rural communities with limited and remote purchasing options, WIC’s limitations further exacerbate the current formula shortage.

A resident of Bay City, Wisconsin, Magee must shop at a store authorized by her state to accept WIC benefits. Unlike people who receive money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, another support for low-income families, WIC recipients cannot use their benefits across state lines, according to the U.S. Department. of Agriculture.

Bay City is a village of about 400 people on the western edge of Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota, which has a population of about 16,500. Bay City does not have WIC-approved grocery stores. Red Wing — less than 10 miles to the west — has three WIC-approved stores, but Magee can’t use its Wisconsin benefits at any of them.

Instead, she drives nearly 80 miles to a WIC-approved Walmart supermarket in Menomonie, Wis., in search of the hypoallergenic formula her daughter needs.

While the formula shortage doesn’t just affect WIC families, it “amplifies the disparities that low-income families have faced for years,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, l nonprofit advocacy organization that represents WIC programs. .

These disparities include low-income families being more likely to live in food deserts or areas with little or no access to affordable healthy foods, which limits their options for WIC-approved stores, he said. he declares.

Typically, WIC recipients have a designated formula that they can purchase with their benefits under what the program calls a “food package.” After Abbott Nutrition’s recall, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services released a list of substitutions for families whose designated formula was among those recalled.

Nutramigen, the formula Magee used to soothe her daughter’s milk sensitivity, hasn’t been recalled, but that hasn’t made her search any easier since the shortage sparked a nationwide scramble for other brands. Every time Magee went to Menomonie for Nutramigen, she made a “wild guess” that she might find some.

She did not do it.

In May, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services released guidance for families facing the shortage. Ministry officials told them to check small grocery stores and pharmacies rather than large ones, and to research store websites before visiting in person. Still, some smaller stores don’t accept WIC, and for women who have to travel an hour or more to check a shelf, what’s online may not reflect reality once they arrive. Like most states, Wisconsin does not allow WIC families to shop online with their benefits.

“Sometimes it’s a barrier because of the cost of transportation,” said Brittany Mora, WIC director for Pierce County, where Magee lives, as she reflected on the number of trips families have taken to the search for a formula – especially as gas prices have risen. climbed to a national average of nearly $5 a gallon.

If Magee drove across her county to check her daughter’s formula at each of the four WIC-approved stores, she’d be traveling about 65 miles round trip and risk coming home empty-handed anyway. Pierce County does not have public transit.

Mora staff encourage parents to call stores before long trips, in case retailers can tell them what’s in stock. Staff members can also advise families on where infant formula might be available and modify families’ food packages to include infant formula available in stores.

Since Abbott’s recall and plant closure, Mora has allowed families to call his personal cell phone for emergencies when his office is closed.

“My biggest fear is that over the weekend a family might not be able to get a formula that was available at the store,” she said.

Similar challenges emerged for women receiving WIC in Minnesota. State WIC Director Kate Franken said families who come to her program for help sometimes don’t have a car, “so they just don’t have as many options for move around and check out different stores”.

Although Minnesota, like Wisconsin, now offers WIC recipients imported formulas to increase their options, the additions don’t help all families equally, Franken said.

Kendamil formulas from the UK and Aussie Bubs from Australia fall into the category of standard milk-based formulas, she said. “It’s good, and it’s what most babies use, but it’s also the category where we’re seeing the best upturn in supply overall.”

She said the standard strategy of importing formula milk does not address the lack of supply of formula for babies with milk intolerance or other digestive problems.

They are babies like Magee’s daughter.

When Magee realized she couldn’t rely on her WIC benefits for immediate access to a hypoallergenic formula, she turned to her family for help.

On May 23, Magee’s future mother-in-law, Geralyn Laurie, posted on Facebook, “Friends everywhere, my granddaughter, Aubrey Elizabeth, needs her specific formula. She needs Nutramigen from Enfamil for infants. It can also be house brands of this formula, which [are Tippy Toes and Well Beginnings]. If you find this, please buy it and I’ll be happy to Venmo you for this product and shipping.

Within weeks, 26 cans of the hypoallergenic formula had made their way to the end of the gravel road lined with farmland leading to Laurie’s home in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, about 30 miles west of Bay City. Some arrived by post, others by visitors who came by plane and train.

Laurie hadn’t expected such an answer.

“Everyone, I think, wants to help, and several people just said, ‘I’m on it,'” she said.

By the time her granddaughter was 3 months old, Laurie had spent over $455 on formula.

Magee has yet to use her WIC benefits to feed her daughter.

KHN

(Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of

KFF

(Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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