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Michigan parents still scrambling to find formula for their babies despite formula plant's reopening

Display shelves at a Target supermarket in Michigan. A sign reads: "Due to high demand and limited inventory, to support all guests we will be limiting quantities of baby formula to 4 per guest. We apologize for any inconvenience" is taped on the shelf. The sign also has a Spanish language translation on it. The shelves look mostly empty. A few cans can be seen on the edge of the image.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Display shelves at a Target supermarket in Michigan.

Parents in Michigan are still struggling to find infant formula due to a massive nationwide shortage that's lasted nearly four months.

The federal government has tried to ease the problem by importing supplies and working with a shuttered Michigan formula factory to restart production, but the leader of the FDA is cautioning it will still take time to get formula back on the shelves.

Low-income families and parents of immunocompromised children are feeling the impact the most.

AnnaLia Bynes stands next to her 8 month old son Maliki. Maliki can be seen sleeping on his baby car seat. The car seat is placed inside a grocery cart. They both are African American. They are standing in front of an empty infant formula display shelf at a Walmart Supermarket in Lansing.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Anna Lia Bynes with her eight-month-old son Maliki. Bynes has had a difficult time in the last month and a half finding formula for her baby. Because he was born several weeks earl,y he needs a special kind of formula to help his brain develop. That formula has been very hard to find.

Every week AnnaLia Bynes teams up with her mom, Joey-L Gomez, to drive from store to store in mid-Michigan looking for baby formula for her eight-month-old son Maliki.

Maliki was born several weeks early. He also has Down syndrome and needs a special kind of formula containing additional nutrients to help his brain develop.

“With kids with Down syndrome or like, development wise, that is really a good formula for development. Kids with like, that have been in the NICU or like anything like that," explained Bynes.

Bynes has been feeling the effects of the nationwide formula shortage since a mass formula recall and the closure of Abbott Nutrition’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan. The manufacturer, which accounts for a major portion of formula production in the U.S., stopped production at its facility in February due to potential contamination that may have caused the deaths of two babies.

And the rising cost of gas also doesn’t help. Gomez, who holds down two jobs, says last month she drove more than an hour to a Meijer supermarket outside Detroit to find one can of formula for her grandson. A can of formula lasts Maliki a little over a week.

Empty display shelves of infant formula at a Target grocery store in Michigan.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Empty display shelves of infant formula at a Target store in Michigan.

"I went to the Brighton Meijer and I went to the Ann Arbor Meijer, and they were both out of stock. So, I made that trip in the rain, and it was very bad on the freeway," Gomez said.

Bynes is on a government food assistance program called Women Infants and Children, or WIC. It provides low-income parents with funds for formula. While the state has expanded the list of formulas covered by WIC since the shortage, the family says they’ve still had to pay out of pocket for several cans. Gomez says it’s a stressful experience having to find different brands.

"I was like, really stressed last week. And then when I got the Meijer brand, I was just like, 'Well, that'll hold over for a little while.' But like I said, we're on our last can of that one," she said.

I was like, really stressed last week. And then when I got the Meijer brand, I was just like, Well, that'll hold over for a little while. But like I said, we're on our last can today that one.
Joey-L Gomez

Anne Devitto, a dietician at Sparrow Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, has been helping parents like Bynes figure out how to acquire the right formula for their baby.

"I do a lot of helping parents negotiate ... going to websites like storebrandformula.com and I always look at the grocery stores I am at to see what's on the shelves," she said.

Devitto says low income parents, babies with food allergies and premature babies are most affected by the shortage.

“I'm getting a lot of messages from panicked parents saying, 'What is my baby gonna go home on? I can't, you know, we get this formula here, but I can't find it in the store,'" she said.

Since the shortage, Devitto has been spending most of her working day helping parents figure out how to find the formula they need.

“I personally pulled some strings with some suppliers of infant formulas to have formulas delivered, especially really specialized formulas for babies who are immune compromised, on WIC, and, or, have allergies," Devitto explained.

Facebook is another place Devitto says she's seeing parents turn to for formula.

I personally pulled some strings with some suppliers of infant formulas to have formulas delivered, especially this really specialized formulas with for babies who are immune compromised on WIC and or have allergies.
Anne Devitto, Sparrow Health System dietician

"There are a lot of families that say: 'Hey, I got this formula in the mail, it's not part of the recall. Porch pickup,'" she said. "So there's a lot of sharing of resources among different communities. That's been really helpful. But it's still a struggle."

In a U.S. Senate hearing last month, FDA Director Dr. Robert Califf said he’s doing everything he can to ensure formula gets to families in need.

“I personally have been driven by memories of the month my daughter spent in the intensive care unit as an infant, and the deep concern and anxiety of a parent driven to protect an innocent child," shared Califf at the May hearing.

While the Abbott formula plant in Sturgis reopened this past weekend, Dr. Califf predicted it will take a few months for formula to become more readily accessible.

Meanwhile, Maliki’s pediatrician says he can begin his transition to solid foods which would give his mother and grandmother a slight reprieve from the weekly formula hunt.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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