Dear Moms, I’ve Been There And I Haven’t: An Open Letter On The Formula Shortage

Baby formula is displayed on the shelves of a grocery store in Carmel, Ind., Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

By Amie Knowles

May 16, 2022

Mamas, I cannot imagine what you’re going through right now.

But I could’ve been in your shoes. I sure do remember those days when my son Colton — now an energetic, train-track-building, monster-truck-racing, T-ball-playing four-year-old — tolerated one type of formula, and one type of formula only.

We tried the Similac. We tried the Enfamil. We should’ve known that the kid who grew up begging to go to Target every single day would only tolerate the Target brand Up & Up soy formula in the green container. 

At first, that was great. It was the least expensive formula, and at the time my husband and I earned $3,000 above the poverty line — that meant we were just barely above the threshold and qualified for no assistance whatsoever. Also, Colton was an emergency c-section baby, and while we had already pre-paid in-full for a natural birth, the unexpected complications plummeted us into unplanned medical debt for the next two-and-a-half years. Add seizure-like episodes onto having a newborn, a trip to the pediatric neurologist in the snow, and another $1,000+ for that, and we were broke.

We budgeted our meals at $38 a week total. Sometimes lunch was a bag of popcorn. There was a lot of off-brand elbow macaroni noodles with condensed tomato soup, thinning it with water instead of milk. One night, we didn’t have any food left in the house, so we counted out our loose change jar and paid for a pizza solely in quarters. We hated pizza. It was the best pizza we ever had. 

I say all that to give an idea of how devastating it was when we went to Target one Friday, only to discover that they were out of Colton’s formula, due to a national issue with soybean production, if my memory serves correct. Not only was the store completely out of stock that day, but the employees we spoke with weren’t sure when it would be back on the shelves. That was a big problem, especially since Colton refused to eat “real food” until two weeks before his first birthday. 

We live in the Southside area, meaning the closest Target to us is 30 minutes away. There’s also one nearly an hour away in Lynchburg, and several about an hour and a half south in Greensboro, North Carolina. On multiple occasions, we had to go out of town in our wrecked 2000 Honda Accord to buy our baby the nutrients he needed to survive and thrive. 

A National Shortage

If you’re not a parent, it might be hard to relate. Imagine there’s no food in your house; you go to the grocery store, but there’s nothing left on the shelves. There’s nothing in the next store you visit, nor at the farmers’ market in the next town over. It’s kind of like that.

The shortage is so much worse than it was back around 2018 and 2019 when I was in the market for it. I go to the store now and walk by the baby aisle on the way to the toy section, bypassing the diapers, the wipes, and the baby foods that for so long were essential for my little boy. I can’t help but notice the utter lack of formula on the shelves, and my heart aches for the moms that are already on their third or fourth store in an unfamiliar town, walking out empty-handed once again.

I wish I could wrap my arms around those moms and say, “I’ve been there, and it gets better.” I can and I can’t. Sure, I had to drive a few places to find the right formula. We did have to switch to the Walmart brand a few times when there wasn’t any soy Up & Up within a few-hours’ radius. Yes, it was stressful. But to go to store after store and town after town just to see bare shelves where my infant’s “food” should be? No. I haven’t been through that. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know when the formula shortage will end. I know we’re all hoping it will be sooner, rather than later. Meanwhile, a report published on May 10 by Tysons-based Datasembly, a leading provider of real-time product pricing, promotions, and assortment data, found that baby formula out-of-stock rates continued to climb. In April, baby formula shortages hit 30% and jumped to 40% by the end of month. For the week ending with May 8, the out-of-stock rate was even worse, at 43%.

In a press release about the report, CEO of Datasembly Ben Reich stated, “This issue has been compounded by supply chain challenges, product recalls, and historic inflation. The category started to see stocking challenges beginning in July 2021, and the situation has continued to worsen into 2022. With our real-time, highly granular data, Datasembly will continue to provide new insights as they become available.”

In the meantime, those searching for formula may find this fact sheet produced by the US Department of Health and Human Services useful. It gives information about manufacturer hotlines, community resources, general guidance, and more.

Is Breast Always Best? 

Back to 2018. Not that I have to explain or address this, but I want to. Why did we have to drive to find formula when we were already on a tight budget? I was still fairly new at the whole “momming” thing. I could just put him to the breast and satisfy my child, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Colton didn’t take to that at all. He was exclusively breast fed for all of three seconds before the nurse shoved a bottle in my hands at the hospital and said, “He needs two ounces every two hours.” Colton and I weren’t given any time in the hospital to establish any type of feeding pattern. I begged the nurse’s station to please stop visitors from coming to my room, but they said they couldn’t. They promised to put a sign on the door, stating that Colton was breastfeeding, but it never happened. The day after Colton was born, we had visitors from before lunchtime to after 9 p.m. — and while I appreciated their excitement, the constant influx of company made for a really miserable, exhausting day. 

The inconvenience wasn’t what stopped us — but goodness, if it’s what ended another mom’s breastfeeding journey, I wouldn’t blame her at all. Having been there and done that, I think that’s a very valid reason. That just wasn’t our reason. We tried and tried. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work out. We tried to meet with a lactation consultant at the hospital, but she never showed. We tried to get in touch with a lactation consultant several times after discharge. Our phones never rang with a call back. We didn’t know about virtual lactation options. 

Also, laying a seven-pound, six-ounce moving, kicking baby right on my stitched-back-together abdomen wasn’t just uncomfortable — it plain out hurt. It was exhausting, people were constantly asking to watch (which I found super weird), it wasn’t enjoyable, and at the end of the day, Colton wasn’t getting enough. We supplemented with formula from the start. Three months in, breastfeeding was completely over. I’ve never looked back. I’ve never regretted not exclusively breastfeeding my child. I didn’t miss it once that chapter of our story ended. 

I say that to say this: breastfeeding is great! There’s no question about the awesome antibodies your body produces to help protect your baby. There’s no denying the bond some mothers feel with their child during those moments. I’d never want to diminish, downplay, or wish that experience away from any mother (and for what it’s worth, feed that baby anywhere you need to, mama). 

But to the whole “breast is best” idea? From experience, fed is best. Whatever way you feed your baby, mama, you are doing a great job. Please don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Coming Together

Back to the present. I’ve seen something really amazing happening on my social media feeds over the past few weeks. Moms are helping each other, and I mean they’re genuinely helping each other.

My personal Facebook feed is filled daily with mothers (and the occasional non-parent, too) posting when our local Target or Walmart or grocery store gets a new supply of baby formula. Parents who bought a certain kind of formula for their kid, but it didn’t work out, are giving the remainder away. Moms are posting the kind of formula their child needs, and others are keeping an eye out for stock. I even saw one mother share a post about giving away her breastmilk, or nursing another woman’s baby if needed. 

This absolutely amazes me, and in a time of turmoil and crisis fills my heart with the tenacity of the human spirit. Why? Because motherhood is the most isolating experience I’ve ever encountered, and I think a lot of moms feel that way — especially at first. It’s incredible to see moms coming together to help one another whenever they can and wherever they can. 

Let’s keep helping each other. Let’s keep encouraging each other. Let’s stop the mom shaming and instead simply lend a hand when we can. 

I’ll keep my eyes out for formula. I’ll keep my heart open to us young ladies just trying to make it all work. And I’ll keep my inbox open if you just want to talk about being a mom. I’m not anywhere close to perfect, but I’m here for you today and always. And for what it’s worth: I’ve been there, and I haven’t — but I can absolutely promise you, it gets better.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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