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Formula shortage hits home: Bemidji mother shares impacts, Sanford pediatrician offers advice

Parents and guardians across the country are struggling to find formula for their children, facing empty shelves and their children’s hungry bellies. Sanford Pediatrician Dr. Colleen Swank shares advice for parents during the ongoing formula shortage.

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The formula shelves at Walgreens are nearly empty on Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Bemidji.
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BEMIDJI — With a 6-month-old baby and another on the way, Sarah Winkle didn’t expect so much of her stress to be caused by simply trying to find formula.

Since first noticing that there was less formula on the shelves around the time that her daughter was 4 months old, Winkle has had to devote more and more time to scouring store shelves just to find the food that her infant needs.

“I noticed that (formula) was getting harder and harder to find,” Winkle said. “That’s when I started having to go to numerous stores and making multiple trips throughout the week.”

It’s not unusual for Winkle, who lives in Bemidji, to visit an average of four different stores in a week, each time looking for formula. She’s even taken to going to stores on her lunch break, just to increase her chances.

And Winkle isn’t alone in her hunt, parents and guardians across the country are struggling to find formula for their children, facing empty shelves and their children’s hungry bellies.

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“It’s a national shortage, not just in our area,” said Dr. Colleen Swank, a board-certified pediatrician and the vice president of the Sanford Clinic in Bemidji.

Sparked after Abbot, the largest formula company in the U.S., issued a product recall and shut down a manufacturing plant over concerns of bacterial infections, the shortage has been going on for months with little action taken to alleviate it.

FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula in San Antonio
FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at CVS in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022.
KAYLEE GREENLEE BEAL/REUTERS

This has left it up to the childrens’ parents and guardians to go above and beyond to make sure that their children get the formula they need.

“It’s a hassle, it’s frustrating,” Winkle said. “That’s not even something you expect to have to worry about as a new mom.”

In addition to taking time out of her lunch breaks, Winkle also used a recent trip to Duluth as an opportunity to hunt down formula.

“We stopped at numerous stores on our way to Duluth and in Duluth and on our way back, looking for formula,” Winkle said.

Other parents have taken to more desperate measures, attempting to make their own formula or watering down what they already have, both things that can be dangerous for small children.

“There’s been recommendations to do different things like make your own formula or dilute formula that you currently have for it to last longer,” Swank said. “These are not safe things to do.”

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These dangerous recommendations, which have been spreading on social media, can lead to children being hospitalized, or worse.

“We have seen, across the nation, some children ending up in the ER or the hospital because of (these) unsafe practices,” Swank said.

Homemade formulas don’t have the right mix of nutrients for infants, according to Swank, and these recipes can also have other substances in them that can be harmful to the babies ingesting them.

Similarly, diluting a store-bought formula with water not only decreases the calories and nutrients in a serving but if an infant consumes too much water this way it can be toxic and potentially fatal.

What can parents do?

So, what should parents do if they’re having a hard time finding formula for their children?

Swank provided different suggestions for different situations and made it clear that parents can reach out to their pediatricians and doctors for help and for answers to any questions they might have.

The first piece of advice Swank gave was to look for formula in multiple stores, including those that you might not normally visit.

“Keep looking at the stores for formula,” Swank said. “It might not be at your regular stores, you might have to look at smaller stores or look at grocery stores.”

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She also added that when parents do find formula on the shelves, they should only take what is needed so that other parents and guardians can feed their children, too.

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The formula shelves at CVS are nearly empty on Sunday, May 22, 2022, in Bemidji.
Courtesy / Brady Laudon of

If parents can’t find their child’s usual formula, Swank said that if an infant is on a standard and non-specialized formula, it should be okay to switch brands.

“Any of the brands that are sold in stores are FDA approved and are safe,” Swank said. “For children who are on regular, standard formula, it’s okay for them to switch brands.”

Not every child can switch brands, however. If a child has a medical issue that requires a specific diet or formula, Swank recommends calling a pediatrician or family medicine doctor to see if there are safe alternatives.

If parents and guardians are still struggling to find the formula they need, Swank also recommends reaching out to your health care provider to see if they can help.

“We are recommending that if people are still having trouble finding formula, call us so we can see what we can do to help,” Swank said.

For recipients of WIC, a program designed to help low-income families and their children, reaching out to one of the program’s representatives is also recommended.

“They’ve been very helpful to make sure babies are getting what they need,” Swank said.

There are also some safe formula alternatives for older infants, but these should be used sparingly.

“For older infants, let’s say 10 to 11 months, for a few days you can use cow’s milk if they’re on a standard cow milk formula,” Swank said. “But you would not want them to receive more than 24 oz. of cow's milk a day.”

Swank specified that the best type of milk to use for that short-term solution is whole milk and that infants close to 1 year could also safely have formula meant for toddlers for a short period of time.

“The important thing is not watering down or making your own formula,” Swank said.

Government action

With the formula shortage having gone on for months, some action has finally begun on a national level to address it.

Congress recently passed a bill regarding the formula shortage that waives the stipulation that only allowed WIC recipients to purchase one brand of formula through the program. It also requires formula manufacturers to create a contingency plan to handle any future recalls.

Another bill has stalled in the Senate, which would provide the FDA emergency funding to help address the crisis.

“Our legislatures really need to realize this is a serious problem,” Swank said. “We do not want children or infants to go hungry or go without nutrition.”

President Joe Biden also recently invoked the Defense Production Act to address the shortage and has announced an operation that will fly in formula from overseas that meets U.S. health and safety standards.

Until these measures begin to take effect, though, families and children will still feel the impact of the shortage, and formula will be hard to find.

“Just take your time, be diligent when looking,” Winkle said. “Don’t give up on your babies.”

Parents anywhere within the Sanford Health system can call their physician, message them through My Sanford Chart or call the 24/7 My Sanford Nurse phone number, (800) 821-5167 or (701) 234-5000 if they have any questions.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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