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Baby Formula Shortage: The Latest NYC Pandemic Parenting Nightmare

Parents and childcare workers are stepping up to distribute extra food to people who need it.

10:16 AM EDT on May 18, 2022

As the baby formula shortage intensifies, parents and childcare workers across New York City are turning to each other for extra formula—crowdsourcing and sharing it in yet another pandemic-era nightmare for parents of young children.

"I don't think a lot of people understand the gravity of it," said Isha Hannah, a 40-year-old Harlem resident. "It should be a national crisis."

Hannah, who works as a postpartum doula, distributed her past clients' leftover formula to five families who needed it. Parents who have found shelves empty and online retailers out-of-stock have had better luck on Facebook groups. A 37-year-old mom working in tech offered breast milk to neighbors to use her extra supply. An art director in Brooklyn posted about an extra case of formula she had after her baby aged out of formula.

A mom in Manhattan, Hannah Kroll, started a Facebook group for women across the country to trade and swap extra formula. Sometimes, parents get a batch of samples or try different brands to find one their baby will tolerate, and may end up with unopened leftovers.

"Why not see if we can help each other?" said Kroll, 33. "No one else is gonna help us. Unfortunately, this is not something that the federal government has stockpiled in part because, up until recently, people have almost hidden that they formula feed." Over 400 people have joined the group since Friday.

For her own baby, who has about two months left of formula feeding, Kroll was at the end of her supply when she sought formula from family members in New Jersey and Utah to mutual friends in Minnesota. The crisis sparked waves of anxiety reminiscent of postpartum mental health struggles she's faced before. Kroll and other mothers say shame and stigma around being unable to breastfeed, for whatever reason, have created a lack of understanding about why parents formula feed.

"If you can't breastfeed, [you] already feel like you're a failure because of everything out there," Kroll said. "Now, here you are, feeling like a bigger failure because you can't find food to feed your baby."

Formula feeding requires careful attention from parents, from sensitive stomachs and allergies to special nutrition requirements for premature babies. Two children in Tennessee have already been hospitalized as a result of inadequate nutrition because formula they needed was unavailable. Managing this is all the more difficult with fewer options.

Since mid-February, a recall and subsequent shutdown of powdered baby formula products made by Abbott Nutrition has sent parents scrambling to find food. Now, the facility is anticipated to reopen in two weeks after an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration, though the company says it'll take another six to eight weeks before shelves are fully stocked. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul announced last week the state is tracking supply chain changes and the state's WIC program is helping caregivers get the formula they need.

"I'm shopping everyday, almost, trying to find anything, if stocks come back anywhere, so I can get an order," said Stephanie Frigault, 34, who lives in Prospect Lefferts-Gardens. "Food isn't available and what is available is selling out quickly."

Frigault's family members are looking in their own towns to ship formula to the first time mom, whose child is six months old, sometimes only to find empty shelves too. Her baby doesn't tolerate lactose, which makes finding the right food tricky.

"Psychologically, it's really tough," she said. "It just feels really disjointed and feels really confusing for me. It's obviously very anxiety-producing."

The shortage "really caught me by surprise," said Jillian Bisnoff, a 31-year-old Park Slope mom whose baby was born a month sooner than anticipated. Bisnoff's only option was bottle feeding, and she needed a specific type for stomach sensitivity.

Bisnoff, who works as a recruiter, posted in the Park Slope Moms Facebook group and was amazed by the response.

"My husband went to one person on a bike and then I rolled my son [by stroller] to a local person that was two blocks away from me to get some formula," she said. "If these women didn't reach out to me I don't really know what I would have done."

Frigault, back in PLG, was on her last can of formula before she was able to secure some from another parent, Lexi Steigelman, via a Buy Nothing neighborhood Facebook group. Steigelman offered up unopened cans of formula remaining from when her baby grew out of formula feeding.

"It's incredible seeing, when there's [baby] formula offered, just the number of comments and the amount of demand," said Steigelman, 35, another Prospect Lefferts-Garden resident.

If it weren't for Steigelman, said Frigault, "I really don't know what we would have done. Switch to another formula that we know she doesn't do well on and hope she gets enough nutrients?"

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