WV low-income mothers, and their babies, are among the hardest-hit by the baby formula shortage

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

By Amelia Ferrell Knisely, Mountain State Spotlight

Matana Lovejoy, a first-time mom in Lincoln County, can’t find infant formula for her 5-month-old daughter on store shelves.

“It just makes you feel helpless,” said Lovejoy, 27. “You never expected to run into an issue where feeding your baby, of all things, is going to be difficult to do.”

Parents all over the country are having trouble finding formula to feed their babies, but Lovejoy faces a harder task than most, for a couple of reasons.

Like a lot of mothers in West Virginia, she buys formula using a federal assistance program for low-income women and children. 

The program provides an electronic card for families, and participants track how they spend their benefits through an app or through the state office that handles the program. The program restricts where participants can shop and what kinds of food – and baby formula – they can buy. 

After the formula shortage, program officials allowed states to relax the limits on the types and brands of formula available through the program, and West Virginia did that. But for babies who need specific kinds of formula, some restrictions remain.

Also, as a resident of rural West Virginia, Lovejoy has access to fewer grocery stores than many other people in her predicament. Even if she finds a store with formula, it might not accept her benefits at all. Many online retailers selling formula also don’t accept her benefits.

After exhausting her options in Lincoln County, Lovejoy has driven to surrounding counties looking for the specific formula that her daughter needs. She’s also used Facebook groups to find formula, and she doesn’t know if she’s being scammed when she sends money.

“I have been relying on the rest of the country sending me sample cans,” she said.

Three out of every four babies born in West Virginia are enrolled in the program formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, and commonly known as WIC. That’s higher than the national average. The majority of those West Virginia babies rely on formula to eat, according to state health department data, and now, the national formula shortage is acutely impacting the state’s poorest mothers and children with no immediate relief in sight. 

WIC in West Virginia serves 8,000 babies per month and the ongoing restrictions on formula purchases act as a barrier for the state’s mothers, especially those who can’t switch their child’s formula under a pediatrician’s orders.

In West Virginia, all foster care children younger than age 5 are automatically eligible for WIC. That includes the 11-month-old baby being fostered by Heather Barrett in Putnam County.

The formula that her foster baby used was part of a massive recall earlier this year that spurred the nationwide shortage. Barrett worked with her local WIC office to find another formula her child could tolerate, but it’s especially hard to find in stores.

“I wait for WIC benefits to come, then I start searching. Yesterday, I went to three stores before I ended up finding it at Wal-Mart,” Barrett, 36, said. “You do what you have to do to make sure she has [formula].”

Amber Gaull, a 37-year-old foster mom in Kanawha County, has packed her 6-month old foster baby and her four other children (two of whom she adopted from the state’s foster care system) in a van and driven to multiple stores in hopes of finding formula. The shelves were usually bare, she said. Once, she found the formula she needed at Target’s Charleston store, but her benefits weren’t accepted there.

“It adds fear to parenting a baby when you don’t know how you’re going to feed them,” Gaull said.

Local, national efforts to help 

Heidi Staats oversees West Virginia’s WIC program under the state Department of Health and Human Resources. She said her office has fielded “panicked calls” from women around the state in need of infant formula. 

About 43% of the usual baby formula supply nationwide was out of stock at the beginning of this month, according to Datasembly, which tracks retail information.

The formula shortage was spurred by the safety-related closure of the country’s largest formula manufacturing plant, Abbott Nutrition. The company exclusively provides formula to about half of infants in the WIC program nationwide, so the plant’s closure and the massive formula recall that came with it hurt WIC programs in particular.

“It’s not something WIC can fix,” Staats said, audibly emotional in a phone interview. “We love our families, and we try to form a village around our moms.

“Typically, in some situations, we would refer [women] to food banks,” she added. “We know food banks don’t have that resource, and that’s been one of the toughest parts.”

Staats said her office is working directly with formula plants in an effort to get the ever-changing limited stock of formula to parts of the state that need the supply most.

Leaders in Washington, D.C., took action Wednesday in response to mounting nationwide pressure for the federal government to address the shortage.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a pair of bills aimed at addressing the problem. One of the bills would give $28 million to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help boost formula supply and prevent future shortages. Only 12 Republicans voted for the measure, including Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and the Senate unanimously signed off on the bill Thursday. The other bill, which Reps. Carol Miller and Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., supported along with McKinley, would give WIC participants greater purchasing flexibility on formula in the future. 

Also on Wednesday, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of infant formula by asking suppliers to provide the needed ingredients to formula manufacturers. 

Since the federal government loosened guidelines for WIC participants, Jennifer Habeb, who oversees the WIC program at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, is helping mothers work with their pediatricians to switch their babies to other types of formulas if the child is medically able. 

“We recommend (mothers) calling their WIC office,” Habeb said, noting her team is doing whatever she can to find formula for families in the nine counties her office serves.

Staats said West Virginia families are likely to see more formula on shelves in eight weeks.

Mikela Elkins, a 27-year-old mom of four who lives in Wayne, spends her free time now looking online and in the few local stores for formula for her nine-month-old nephew, who has gastrointestinal issues that limit him to one type of formula. Her sister doesn’t drive, so Elkins said she is always looking to help.

“We look pretty much daily for her because it’s just so scarce,” she said. “It’s scary.”

Reach reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely at ameliaknisely@mountainstatespotlight.org

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