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Health

National formula shortage leaves Maine parents struggling to feed their babies

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Patty Wight
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Maine Public
Kelsy Richardson and her daughter, Thea, at empty store shelves.

For months, parents who rely on infant formula to feed their babies have been grappling with a shortage. Supply chain issues have been exacerbated by the recall of certain formulas and the closure of an Abbott manufacturing facility in February after four infants developed bacterial infections and two died. While the U.S. is now receiving shipments of formula from Europe and the Abbott facility is expected to reopen next month, it will still take weeks before there's adequate supply. And in the meantime, Maine parents are struggling daily to find food for their babies.

Ever since the end of March, Kelsy Richardson of Kittery has seen the supply of infant formula her five-month old daughter Thea needs literally evaporate.

"It's just been a nightmare, like I'm actually on my last can right now," Richardson says.

That one can, she says, only lasts three days and she's already dipped into it. And she can't just buy any formula for her daughter. She was born four weeks premature and needs a special kind that Richardson usually orders through her insurance company. But they ran out, so now Richardson scours local store shelves. Inside a Walmart on a recent weekday, she wheels her daughter's stroller to the formula section. It's nearly empty, and what little formula is there is not the kind Thea needs.

"Yep. Pretty much what I expected," she says. "Try to not get my hopes up."

So, Richardson drives to another Walmart 15 minutes away. But she strikes out again.

"Oh geez. they're even more bare here," she says.

Richardson has one other option. Her daughter's cardiologist called that morning and has one can of formula they can give her. So Richardson will drive another 20 minutes to pick it up. It's a relief, but only fleeting. In a few days, Richardson will need another can and doesn't know where she'll get it. Even when she orders online, she says she frequently gets follow-up emails that the formula is out of stock.

"Add in the expensive gas prices, I can't afford to go all over New England, trying to find formula because of how expensive gas prices are right now. So that adds another layer into yet a really difficult and stressful time," Richardson says.

"I just don't want families to become hopeless around this," says Dr. Genevieve Whiting, a pediatrician at Maine Medical Partners in Westbrook and a spokesperson for the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

She says her practice gets calls daily from parents struggling to find formula. Providers can help some families identify different formulas some babies can switch to. They also encourage families to see if they're eligible for Maine's Women, Infants and Children nutrition benefits program, which is distributing formula from their local offices.

"I think it's the families that don't quite qualify but feel a lot of strain, those are the ones we're hearing more from," Whiting says.

Until the supply of formula ramps up, Whiting says her practice has been trying to alleviate stress for families where it can. Sometimes that means assistance with transportation so there's more money for formula when they can find it.

"And so I think our job is more than just finding formula for families. It's asking about all of those points of stress and seeing how we can support them in all of those different avenues," Whiting says.

The shortage has also sprouted grassroots efforts among parents to support each other.

Emily Chamblee of South Berwick started the Facebook group Maine/NH Formula Help. It's one of a few local Facebook groups dedicated to helping parents find formula.

I have a nine month old daughter named Hazel and she has been using formula since pretty early on. And we are struggling to find it," Chamblee says.

Chamblee says she wanted to create a centralized place where parents could find information quickly. People offer spare cans and post pictures of store shelves to show what's in stock. Chamblee says she also wanted to create a space for practical solutions and avoid the judgment and comments from some who tell moms they should just breastfeed.

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courtesy of Emily Chamblee
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Emily Chamblee and her daughter Hazel.

"I already tried," Chamblee says. "It didn't work for me. And it didn't work for us. So I said, we're going to use formula. And suggesting me to go back to something that didn't work and that was really difficult and didn't help my child was not, it's not helpful, and it's not kind."

For now, Chamblee says, all parents can do is work together to try to make sure their babies are fed.