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Ohio Valley Organizations Work Together To Keep Infants Fed Amid Formula Shortage

photo by: Derek Redd

Empty shelves at local grocery stores where packs of baby formula usually sit have created stress and anxiety for parents of infants.

WHEELING — A combination of troubled production and supply chain struggles have led to a nationwide shortage of infant formula, which in turn has parenting organizations circling the wagons to better serve their community.

Both the Gabriel Project in Wheeling and the Wellspring Pregnancy Center in Moundsville have been inundated with calls from parents seeking formula in recent weeks, with callers from as far away as Cincinnati seeking help locating particular kinds of formula. Baby formula has been in short supply since a February recall by Abbott Nutrition, in conjunction with supply chain issues which have choked distribution.

Faith Hicks, Northern Panhandle Chapter Coordinator for the Gabriel Project, said callers have been seeking particular brands, and that she’s been working alongside the WIC offices in Ohio and Belmont counties to help fill the need. Hicks has been advising parents with limited options to check with local breastmilk sharing groups on social media, if their children are in desperate need of nutrients.

“WIC and ourselves are trying to do all that we can to network together and keep things going,” Hicks said. “… Contact us with alternative types of formula, contact WIC, contact Wellspring. We’re all working together to meet the need, but we’re probably going to have to look at alternative types of formula for the baby.”

Wellspring co-director Cris Jacobs reported the same, saying that many families come looking for a specific kind of formula, which greatly limits their options.

“We have to stay with the formulas the doctors put the baby on; we can’t deviate from that,” Jacobs said. “If moms are having a shortage of formulas that are hard to keep, you can imagine how they feel.”

Hicks said the shortage is felt especially by foster or adopting families.

“This is a mom and dad who are willing to adopt, but she has no formula, and no natural way to nurse the baby, because this is an adoptive mom,” Hicks said. “We see so many families out there now who, for one reason or another, are not the ones bringing the baby home. They have a kinship placement, a foster placement, and those are individuals who are not at all equipped to be able to get formula, and the shortage is making it even more difficult.

“We’re all basically explaining to our guests that they need to check with their pediatrician to see if there can be a substitute in the brand,” Hicks said. “… It is a dire situation.”

Hicks reckoned that the shortage will likely continue into the summer, as even after formula resumes production. There is some hope for help on the horizon. A bill has passed through Congress and awaits President Joe Biden’s signature which will allow those who use WIC to redeem vouchers for whatever brands of formula are available. Those vouchers generally only allow users to buy one type of formula.

Also, the head of the Food and Drug Administration said this week that the Abbott Nutrition formula plant in Michigan, which has been closed for contamination problems, could be up and running by this coming week.

Shipment of that formula, however, could take up to two months afterward. Hicks foresees a tight summer ahead.

“We’ve gone from one type of quarantine with COVID to this now, and it’s just like, we’re surviving,” she said.

Jacobs said she’s already buying any formula she sees on her own time to keep Wellspring’s inventory as full as possible. Wellspring will distribute formula to anyone who asks, she said.

“I personally went today and bought eight cans of formula I saw on sale at Walmart. It was formula I knew we didn’t have,” she said. “… We serve the whole Ohio Valley. There’s no fee, no qualifications. If you have a need, we have a baby shop set up for moms to shop through once a month, with maternity clothes and clothes up to six months for babies.

“We continue to give out diapers and formula until babies are out of diapers and formula, so our clients, we have (them) for a long time.”

Jacobs said Wellspring aims to provide several other services, such as getting a crib to all children, as well as free clinical pregnancy test. It also serves as a crisis pregnancy center. Despite the hardship, Gabriel Project volunteer Martha White said the support of the community never stops.

“I’ve been a volunteer here for about six years now. Whenever we are low, or in need of something, we put out the word and we get filled up,” White said. “Churches do drives for us, local womens’ groups do drives for us. Somebody comes in with a check. The doorbell rang today and a woman came in with six cans of formula that her children can’t use anymore, that she knows we can use.

“It’s a wonderful place, and we’re very well supported in this community.”

The Gabriel Project of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle chapter is located at 1409 Chapline St. in Wheeling, and can be reached at 304-639-5039. Wellspring Pregnancy Center is located at 1315 Center St. in Moundsville, as well as at their Cadiz location, and can be reached at 304-810-0292.

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