Lingering baby formula shortage has food banks left with few cans to give

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — The nation’s baby formula shortage has left at least some food banks sometimes going without.
Families do who find formula on store shelves are paying higher prices.
Low-income women who are in the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) supplemental help program have less choice: Similac-branded formula was the only standard one Washington state residents were approved to buy with their WIC card.
State officials swiftly moved in February to temporarily allow alternate purchases, said Carolyn McGinty, the WIC program manager for Pregnancy Aid/WIC of Snohomish County, one of the county’s two largest service providers.
People on WIC could call in to ask for alternates while standing at the shelves and get authorizations “with a click of a button” at the WIC office, McGinty said.
Some 8,400 mothers are on the WIC program in the county. When Similac went largely missing, the glut of families picked up whatever was left, compounding the empty shelves.
Many might look to a food bank to get some.
But food banks are in a tight spot. Their suppliers are largely out, too.
On Aug. 2, the Snohomish Community Food Bank had three cans of formula powder and a few packs of liquid formula. Usually, there’s a shelf full, the food bank’s director Elizabeth Durand said.
Public drop-off donations are its only source.
It can take only unexpired, unopened formula. There’s no wiggle room on expiry dates.
If a baby’s graduated to grown-up food, the food bank will happily accept the leftover baby formula, she said.
The Snohomish food bank buys some food in bulk, but it’s an awkward proposition to buy big stocks of baby formula during a shortage.
“As a food bank, if we have it, we have it, if we don’t, we don’t,” Durand said. “In the case of baby formula, there are no substitutes.”
The shelves were empty at the Sky Valley Food Bank, its director Matthew Campbell said.
They’ve taken to occasionally sending staff to buy cans when a client needs formula.
Anyone who could buy a can and drop it off would be a big help, Campbell said.
“The shortage is still there but it is improving a lot,” McGinty, from the local WIC program, said.
Two companies occupy 75% of sales, according to Reuters, before Abbott Nutrition had a setback.
Abbott recalled Similac and similar brands after inspectors found a bacterial problem inside its Sturgis, Michigan production plant. The plant went idle for five months this spring.
Its plant reopened briefly in June before another temporary closure that lasted to July 11.
It can take weeks to restore supplies, an Abbott company statement says.
No Enfamil products were recalled.
Enfamil’s maker Reckitt Mead Johnson announced Aug. 1 that it would fly millions of tons of raw ingredients from its Singapore plant to one of its many U.S. plants where it is blended into infant formula for distribution in the U.S. market. It plans to repeat this act in September.
While Reckitt Mead Johnson says Enfamil today has 50% of the market share, the gains were in a market shaken by shortage.
Abbott didn’t respond by deadline to the Tribune’s questions on what it is doing or how many U.S. baby formula plants it has. One is an infant formula and adult nutrition plant in Columbus, Ohio, where the company increased production by reconfiguring product priorities at the plant.

The Snohomish Community Food Bank takes drop-off donations Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays 9 a.m. to noon and Tuesdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 1330 Ferguson Park Road, Snohomish.
The Sky Valley Food Bank takes drop-off donations 9:30 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 233 Sky River Parkway, Monroe.