She drove through four towns in search of baby formula, staring down barren shelves at store after store. At the end of that long May day, Kristen Graham had two small cans to show for it — enough to feed her 3-month-old for about 48 hours.
Then, the formula her daughter needed disappeared, and the fear returned.
With store shelves almost empty for miles, Graham asked family and friends to be on the lookout. She joined formula groups on Facebook, where she was dismayed to see people hawking free samples for $15 apiece. A friend mentioned a website that matches parents in need with people who have formula to share. There, finally, she found a few more precious cans.
“It’s scary,” Graham said. “It’s scary being a new mom and going through this. I don’t think it should ever be something that should happen.”
Amid a nationwide shortage that has seen formula stockpiles fall as much as 43 percent lower than usual, Americans are going to great lengths to get their hands on formula. The crisis — caused by supply chain disruptions and a plant shutdown and recall at major producer Abbott Nutrition after the deaths of two babies who consumed its formula — has led to rationing at stores and limited availability online.
Parents desperate to find formula are driving far from home, pleading for help on social media and paying exorbitant prices. Some have been snared by online scams, with opportunists taking advantage of the crisis to make money. Many feel a sense of panic about how to get their babies the food they need.
For Christopher Okenka and his husband, feeding their son has never been easy. Since they adopted him as a newborn, the now-8-month-old has had gastrointestinal problems. He turned red, screamed and vomited up every formula he tried before EleCare, a hypoallergenic, more easily digestible brand made by Abbott.
It seemed like the answer — until Okenka saw a “Good Morning America” segment about the recall. He went straight to the pantry to check the serial numbers on Zack’s formula. It was all recalled.
“I was like, ‘Okay, if I cant find EleCare, I can’t feed my child,’” said Okenka, 38, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, Ga. “And that was a moment of panic.”
He wrote about it on Facebook and Instagram, and friends and family sent what formula they could find. But it was part of the recall, too. Neither the pediatrician nor the GI specialist could offer much help.
Ultimately, Okenka said, the couple had to switch Zack to another brand of formula — the one that was “least offensive to his digestive system” — and supplement his diet with purées of fruits or vegetables.
“Parenting is hard enough as a same-sex married couple with a 9-month-old,” he said. “This adds extra stress and anxiety.”
The Food and Drug Administration last month announced that it would make it easier for foreign manufacturers to ship more formula to the United States, and that it reached an agreement that would help Abbott reopen its shuttered Sturgis, Mich., plant. The Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act to increase domestic production, and it authorized the Defense Department to use commercial airlines to fly formula that meets U.S. standards into the country.
On Wednesday, President Biden announced that his administration had arranged the third and fourth flights under what the White House is calling Operation Fly Formula. The deliveries are expected to bring millions of bottles of infant formula into the country.
But, in the short run, many parents are still scrambling.
Some have looked to recipes for homemade formulas that are floating around the Internet. The American Academy of Pediatrics has advised against this practice, warning about the potential for contamination or an incorrect balance of nutrients. The organization also discourages adding water to stretch formula supplies because it can dilute protein and mineral levels.
Instead, it said, people should call their pediatricians, buy formula online if they can afford it or look to online groups that might have suggestions. But parents say those ideas, which echo advice from many authorities, have not always panned out.
Ann Oh thought she’d be able to find formula online after the type that works for her 8-month-old daughter vanished from stores in her home of St. Cloud, Minn. But, she wrote in an email to The Washington Post, “any formula available was set to be shipped out by July or September, and I was fresh out of formula that DAY.”
Frantic, she asked her mother and her in-laws to check their local stores, and they found a small stash. Still, Oh’s worries have not let up. Her daughter has a “monstrous” appetite, and she’s fearful of how long formula will be hard to find.
“I keep on thinking what CAN I do if it runs out?” wrote Oh, 35. “Will food alone be enough? What can I use instead?”
Many parents have been frustrated by exhortations from observers to turn to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding does not work for all parents or all babies, for reasons including medical issues, low supply and inadequate time. About 1 in 4 babies are fed breastmilk exclusively through six months, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning most American families rely at least in part on formula.
Keiko Zoll thought of her struggle to breastfeed her son years ago, and his eventual need for a specialized formula, when she heard about parents struggling with the shortage.
“I was so overcome with this sense of, ‘Oh my God, what if this was me now, in the middle of a national crisis?’ ” said Zoll, 40, who lives in the Boston area.
That night, she created a website, freeformulaexchange.com, for parents to share formula in a kind of mutual aid. In a sign of the severity of the shortage, Zoll said, the site recently listed a thousand donors and almost 10,000 parents in need.
It’s been a lifeline to parents like Graham, the new mom in Pennsylvania. Through the website, she found a woman who had leftover formula from a subscription service she’d used before her son turned 1. Her boyfriend also found two bottles at a Walmart in the city where he works, and on a recent day, she was feeling okay about her stockpile.
But she questioned how the situation had become so dire.
“I don’t understand how it ever got to a point where parents are scared about feeding their babies,” she said.