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Virginia parents, doctors and officials cope with baby formula shortage

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Jessie Knadler
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Shelves at a Lexington Walmart that would normally be full of containers of baby formula.

The United States is in the midst of a baby formula shortage following contamination and temporary closure of a plant in the upper Midwest responsible for the majority of baby formula production in the country. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has a look at the impacts of the shortage, and how local moms and state officials have responded.

Tonia Clemmer runs a charitable program called Care Kits in Rockbridge County. It allows people in need to shop for personal hygiene items and homecare goods for free. One of their most sought-after items is baby formula. When we spoke, Tonia was down to her last seven cans with no more donations on the horizon.

TONIA CLEMMER: It really is a crisis that, I mean, they're getting to the point that just this morning we gave a can out to someone that literally was out. She gave her last scoop to the baby this morning and that was it. She had no more formula to feed her child today. She's scared to death, you know, she doesn't know what to do.

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Screenshot from this week's press conference
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Senator Tim Kaine

The baby formula shortage is an issue that’s playing out nationally. Grocery store aisles are empty. All the big formula brands on Amazon show up as currently unavailable. And Virginia legislators have responded. Senator Tim Kaine joined a letter from thirty senators to manufacturers urging them to ramp up production.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: And since that letter has gone, three bits of good news: First, the company whose plant was shut down reached an agreement yesterday where they will reopen the plant with the safety concerns resolved within the next couple of weeks. That will start soon to produce more formula and ease this problem. Second, the Biden administration has announced that they will allow importation of baby formula – safe baby formula – from other countries to help deal with the short-term supply challenge. And finally, the administration is going to move other processes, rules, and regulations to end some of the supply chain issues. 

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Jessie Knadler
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Governor Glenn Youngkin released a statement May 13 that said, in part, the Virginia Department of Health is working to ensure that there are adequate supplies of baby formula statewide” and that “acquiring baby formula shouldn’t be a challenge in the United States.”

To meet the challenge, the Virginia Department of Health has come up with a list of recommendations for parents of young children. Among their advice: Try alternate or store-brand formulas if the baby doesn’t have dietary restrictions. Virginia WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for low-income women with children, has made it easier for participants to purchase other formulas outside what their benefits allow.

And the American Academy of Pediatrics recently relaxed their standards to allow babies over six months old to drink cow’s milk temporarily until formula can be found.

But what about babies that do have dietary restrictions?

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Laura Mendoza
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Laura Mendoza of Lexington has an 11-month old daughter named Murphy who has GI issues. She can’t use alternate formulas or give her daughter cow’s milk.

LAURA MENDOZA: The doctors are giving these great recommendations, which for some parents are fine, but a lot of parents can't, you know, their children have certain, you know, nutritional needs that need to be met. Like my daughter with her GI issues. I mean, there's a lot of babies that just can't do the norm.

Laura was fortunate in that her sister in another state was able to track down a box of this special formula for Murphy. After that, Laura can only hope her brand will be back on the shelves. In the meantime, she took to social media to donate alternate cans of formula she is unable to use to other moms.

MENDOZA: I mean, they went in literally minutes.

Another thing that’s proliferated online is breast milk donations – mothers who have breast milk to give. It’s a tempting offer but pediatricians caution against this.

ROB TRUNDLE MD: There are diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. They can be transmitted from breast milk.

Rob Trundle is a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville. If breast feeding isn’t an option for a mom, he recommends going through a verified milk bank. The one thing he does not recommend is diluting existing formula which can be extremely dangerous.

DR. TRUNDLE: When you do that, you offset the balance of sodium and other electrolytes in the formula and can put the child at risk of severe illness.

He’s optimistic that if parents stay in touch with their doctors, and don’t hoard formula, supplies should be back to normal soon.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag