The US baby food shortage has sparked strong interest from US milk banks, with some mothers offering to donate breast milk and calling desperate parents to see if this is a solution to feeding their babies.
It’s a path that doesn’t work for every formula-fed baby, especially those with special dietary needs, and it presents challenges as the country’s dozens of nonprofit milk banks prioritize feeding medically vulnerable infants. The organizations collect and process milk from mothers, including through pasteurization, and then work with hospitals to distribute it.
The shortage was due to a safety recall and supply disruptions, and has garnered national attention as parents panicked to swap and buy formulas online and President Joe Biden urged manufacturers to ramp up production and spoke to retailers about it , how they could replenish the shelves to compensate for regional differences. Biden’s administration also said Friday that formula maker Abbott Laboratories has committed to providing rebates through August for a food stamp-like program called WIC that helps women, infants and children.
At Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, based in Newton, Massachusetts, interest in donating and receiving milk has skyrocketed due to the shortage. Typically, the milk bank receives around 30-50 calls a month from people wanting to donate. On Thursday alone, 35 calls were received from potential donors, said Deborah Youngblood, the bank’s chief executive.
“It’s interesting that the first set of responses we got came from potential donors — people who responded to the lack of food with an amazing, compassionate response, ‘how can I be part of the solution?'” she said .
Youngblood spoke about people like Kayla Gillespie, a 38-year-old mother of three from Hays, Kansas. Gillespie first donated to Denver’s Mothers’ Milk Bank six years ago, gave up 18 gallons (68 liters) after the birth of her first child, and has no intention of doing so again.
“I thought 18 gallons was enough for one person,” she said. “If I hadn’t heard about the shortage I wouldn’t go through the process again just because I have three kids and it’s a bit messy around here.”
She has promised at least 150 ounces of her milk but said she expects to give much more than that.
“I’m very blessed to be able to produce milk, so I just felt like I had to do something,” she said.
She said she has shipped her frozen milk to Denver in special containers in the past, but this time her local hospital is taking the donations and she can just drop it off.
It’s not just donors, however. Parents, desperate for food for their babies, also look to milk banks.
At the Massachusetts milk bank, about 30 people called to look for milk because they couldn’t find their baby’s usual formula, Youngblood said. This is due to almost no calls as the milk bank normally serves hospitals.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, an accrediting organization for non-profit dairy banks, is seeing a “substantial increase” in demand, according to Lindsay Groff, the group’s chief executive. She estimates that requests from parents wanting to fill the formula gap have increased by 20% in the past few days.
Calling the shortage a “crisis,” Groff said it’s not as simple as parents just supplementing with donated breast milk, given that the vast majority of those supplies are for babies with medical conditions.
“If people can donate, now would be the right time because having more inventory allows us to look beyond the medically fragile,” she said.
Parents also turn to online breast milk exchange forums to meet their babies’ needs.
Amanda Kastelein, a mother of three from Middlebury, Connecticut, supplemented the special formula she needs for 10-month-old Emerson with breast milk from a mother she shared on a peer-to-peer Facebook page called Human Milk found 4 Human Babies .
Kastelein stopped breastfeeding after recurring infections, but tried to start breastfeeding again in March after the formula recall, with little success.
“Emerson is allergic to most formulas, so it was difficult to find something he wasn’t allergic to,” she said.
Entering was Hannah Breton of Naugatuck, Connecticut, who has been producing more milk than her 2 1/2 month old son needs. She gives Kastelein about 60 ounces of milk every two weeks. That’s enough to fill up her formula and keep Emerson full.
“She asked a few questions — what medications I’m on, if any, something like that,” Breton said. “So we were like, ‘Okay, that’s perfect.’ So she comes by every couple of weeks and picks up the milk I saved for her.”
“I feel helpful,” she added. “It’s exciting and rewarding to be able to give to a mother who can’t find what she’s looking for and when her son can’t take formula I mean it’s scary.
Rebecca Heinrich, head of Mothers’ Milk Bank in Colorado, warns milk seekers that looking for donors can be risky.
“We want to make sure these mothers are as safe as possible and meeting their child’s needs. Therefore, it is best to consult with their healthcare provider on how to meet these needs,” she said.
The shortage is particularly troubling low-income families following formula maker Abbott’s recall amid contamination concerns. The recall exhausted many brands covered by WIC, a federal program such as food stamps for women, infants and children, although it now allows brand replacements.
On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to the head of Abbott Laboratories expressing his “serious concern about the accessibility of safe infant formula” and noting that Abbott has infant formula contracts in the federal WIC program. Vilsack urged Abbott to continue a program offering discounts on alternative products including formulas for competing brands, which it had been doing on a monthly basis. The White House said Friday Abbott committed to the rebates by the end of August.
The Biden administration said it is working with states to make it easier for WIC recipients to purchase different sizes of formula that their benefits may not currently cover.
Abbott has said it could restart a manufacturing facility “within two weeks,” subject to Food and Drug Administration approval.
The company would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum, and metabolic formulas, and then begin production of Similac and other formulas. Once production begins, it would take six to eight weeks for the formula to hit store shelves.
On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with US manufacturers to increase production and streamline paperwork to allow for more imports.
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