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Grandparents Become Detectives in Hunt for Scarce Baby Formula

Shortages have caused families to get creative as they search

Shelves normally meant for baby formula sit empty at a store in downtown Washington, DC, on May 22, 2022

SAMUEL CORUM/Getty Images

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​When Jackie McMann-Oliveri learned that her daughter and son-in-law were having trouble finding formula for their 5-month-old son, Jake, she was shocked.​

“Formula is the one thing most babies need,” she says. “This shortage is so scary.” ​

​A nationwide baby formula shortage caused by supply chain issues and an infant formula recall has led to bare store shelves and “Sold out” notices on websites. In fact, 43 percent of baby formulas were out of stock across the United States, according to a report from Datasembly, a firm that tracks products and supplies. In states such as Arizona, California, Georgia and Mississippi, the out-of-stock rates were almost 95 percent, Bloomberg News reported.

The scarcity is triggering frenzied formula searches by parents and grandparents. They’re scouring internet sites and brick and mortar stores, as well as using online crowdsourcing, to locate the hard-to-find infant nutritional necessity. ​

​When she first heard about the shortage, McMann-Oliveri, 52, went into “mama-bear mode” to find supplies for her grandson. She checked stores near her home in Pawling, New York, and ordered formula from multiple online retailers. She also asked friends to be on the lookout for infant formula for Jake. ​

​“I left no stone unturned,” she says.​

​Formula shortage stirs fears​

​Baby Formula-Shortage Advice and Resources 

  • ​Do not use recalled formula. A full list of recalled products is available here from the Food and Drug Administration. ​
  • ​Do not attempt to make your own formula. The FDA says homemade formula may lack nutrients needed for infant growth. ​
  • This free crowdsourced map provides information about locations where formula is stocked and where there are shortages and needs.​
  • ​The Free Formula Exchange allows people to donate formula and to request it.​

The federal government is working to address the problem. In May, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Protection Act to boost supplies and approve infant formula imports from other countries. The government also approved Operation Fly Formula, which encourages commercial airlines to donate flights to transport infant formula. Recent flights have brought hundreds of thousands of pounds of formula into the country to restock store shelves.​

​But the shortage has also stirred deep fears among parents of not being able to provide their babies with essential nutrition. A poll by Data for Progress found that 84 percent of voters were worried that parents would not be able to find formula for their children. ​

​And parents aren’t the only ones with this anxiety, according to Neda Gould, the director of the Mindfulness program at Johns Hopkins Medicine and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic.​​“Grandparents feel a strong connection to their grandchildren and feel distressed,” she says. “Worrying motivates us to act, so if grandparents are worried, it activates them to problem-solve.”​

​Sue Poremba, 59, has searched for formula for her 4-month-old granddaughter and found it especially difficult to find the specialized formula the newborn needs for her sensitive system. But thanks to the combined efforts of both sets of grandparents, the baby’s parents now have a small stockpile.​

​Knowing the neighborhood stores has been helpful in Poremba’s search. In her State College, Pennsylvania, neighborhood, the supermarkets frequented by 30-something shoppers have fewer cans of formula left on the shelves than the grocery stores favored by older people.​

​“I worry about my grandbabies not getting their formula,” Poremba says. “I’m happy that my kids seem to have a plan and that they are willing to reach out for help.”​

Baby formula crowdsourcing and support

Grandparents have also turned to social media and online resources. Houston, Texas, mother Marcela Young created a map of the United States so that users can share information about stores that have formula in stock, and the website Free Formula Exchange describes itself as “a nationwide mutual aid network connecting families who need baby formula to people who have formula to donate.”​

​Grandparents are using online Facebook groups and other sites to crowdsource formula, to express their fears about the struggle to locate it and to find support. ​

​“Talking to other grandparents [creates] a sense of community and helps you learn additional ways that others may be problem-solving the situation,” Gould says.​

​While shopping for formula for her grandchild, Poremba has been watching store shelves for a specialty brand that another family needs for their infant. ​

​“You just have to remember to add the baby aisle to your shopping trip,” she says. “[My son and daughter-in-law] are grateful for our offer to help with the search.”​

​In New York, McMann-Oliveri is continuing her quest. She’s been stunned by the willingness of friends in other states to search shelves and ship formula to her daughter and son-in-law. McMann-Oliveri’s goal is to accumulate a one-month supply of formula for her grandson. 

“As in other times of need,” she says, “we are amazed at the efforts of our loved ones and communities.”

​Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.​

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