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Stateside Podcast: Accessing baby formula in Michigan

Several purple and yellow containers of baby formula sit on a store shelf. Much of the shelf is empty.
Scott Olson
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Michigan parents have been struggling to acquire baby formula for months due to a nationwide shortage.

The Abbott Baby Formula Factory in Sturgis reopened last weekend, but the shortage of formula is likely to persist for some time. This is difficult news for mothers who are already struggling to feed their children.

Rachelle McKissick-Harris is a Grand Rapids mother of three boys, including one born earlier this year. She first became aware of the shortage when she started to wean her youngest off breast milk and had difficulty finding formula, something she said she has never encountered before. The situation adds to the already stressful time of caring for a newborn.

“There's already tons of anxiety, and stress, and you’re overtired,” McKissick-Harris said. “Struggling to find food for your baby is definitely one of the top stressors.”

Kate Bauer is an associate professor for Nutritional Sciences at University of Michigan who works with McKissick-Harris and other Michigan mothers. She said there were no alternatives available once certain formula brands were recalled in February. Small stores had empty shelves and were either unable or unwilling to provide refunds for recalled formula.

Early on, McKissick-Harris was able to order formula online, but the websites quickly ran out of stock. She then resorted to compensating friends and family for formula they were able to buy and ship to her. But, even when products are available, ordering online is not a viable option for some mothers, according to Bauer. With taxes, tips, and shipping costs, having formula mailed is not always practical.

“Even if they could find something on their Amazon app or their Target app, it would be an enormous expense to have that delivered to their house,” Bauer said.

Despite living in a large city like Grand Rapids, McKissick-Harris often has to drive to three different stores to find formula. For mothers living in more rural areas, the nearest store can be hours away, making it difficult to shop around.

To help ease the burden, McKissick-Harris and others have taken to sharing wherever they find formula.

“If we find a store that has formula on the shelf, [we are] sending out notices, like, ‘Hey, I found formula at this Walmart, if you're able to get there, get there,’” McKissick-Harris said.

When there is nothing left on the shelves, many women turn to substitutes. In the search for alternatives, Bauer pushed back on the initial refrain from health officials that women should simply speak with their doctors.

“I don't know if pediatricians really have answers when there's nothing available,” Bauer said. “It's easier to find soy milk formulas than cow's milk formulas. So that may be an option if your child accepts that. I've also heard from parents [who] push solids more, to get a few extra calories in that way. But I would really encourage families to check out the American Academy of Pediatrics advice online, because I do feel like it's become increasingly practical and relevant.”

Despite the federal government working to import baby formula from abroad and the Abbott factory restarting operations, Bauer and McKissick-Harris have not seen an increase in local supply. As more products do come in, Bauer said certain communities should be prioritized.

“We really need to keep in mind,” Bauer said, “that certain communities have been without this [formula] for many, many months and do not have the resources to just click on that Amazon Prime cart and buy something. We need to prioritize certain communities as we're refilling shelves.”

In spite of the shortage, McKissick-Harris’s four-month-old son is doing well.

“He's healthy. He's happy,” McKissick-Harris said.

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Radio from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Asher Wertheimer is a junior at Olivet College studying Journalism and Mass Communication.