Baby formula shortage fuels milk bank interest

by MIKE CATALINI and PAT EATON-ROBB

The U.S. baby formula shortage has sparked a surge in interest from milk banks across the country, with some mothers offering to donate their breast milk and desperate parents calling to see if this is the solution to keeping babies fed.

It’s a pathway that doesn’t work for every formula-fed baby, especially those with special dietary needs, and it presents challenges as dozens of nonprofit milk banks in the country prioritize feeding medicine on fragile babies. These organizations collect milk from mothers and process it, including through pasteurization, and then distribute it in partnership with hospitals.

Shortages stem from safety recalls and supply disruptions and have drawn national attention as panicked parents look to swap and buy formula online, with President Joe Biden urging manufacturers to increase production and discussing with retailers how to restock to meet regional disparities . The Biden administration also said Friday that formula maker Abbott Laboratories has pledged to provide rebates by August for a food stamp-like program called WIC to help women, infants and children.

At the Northeast Breast Milk Bank in Newton, Massachusetts, interest in donating and receiving breast milk has surged amid shortages. Typically, milk banks receive around 30-50 calls per month wishing to donate. Deborah Youngblood, the bank’s executive director, said 35 potential donors had called on Thursday alone.

“Interestingly, the first responses we got were from potential donors – so people’s response to the formula shortage was a surprising, compassionate response to how can I be part of the solution ?” she says.

Youngblood talks about people like Kayla Gillespie, a 38-year-old mother of three from Hayes, Kansas. Gillespie first donated to Denver’s Mother Milk Bank six years ago, donating 18 gallons (68 liters) after the birth of her first child, and doesn’t plan to do it again.

“I think 18 gallons is enough for one person,” she said. “If I hadn’t heard about the shortage, I wouldn’t have gone through the process again because I have three kids and it’s a bit of a mess here.”

She has pledged to provide at least 150 ounces of milk, but said she hopes to provide much more than that.

“I’m lucky to be able to produce milk, so I just felt like I needed to do something,” she said.

She said she used special containers to ship frozen milk to Denver, but this time, her local hospital is accepting donations and she can send them.

It’s not just donors, though. Parents desperate to find nutrition for their babies are also looking to milk banks.

At milk banks in Massachusetts, about 30 people called looking for milk because they couldn’t find the formula commonly used by babies, Youngblood said. This is because there are few telephones, as milk banks usually serve hospitals.

Lindsay Groff, executive director of the North American Association of Breast Milk Banks, the accrediting body for nonprofit breast milk banks, said demand is “growing substantially.” She estimates that inquiries from parents seeking to fill the formula gap have risen by 20 per cent in recent days.

Grove called the shortage a “crisis” and said it wasn’t as simple as parents simply replenishing donated breast milk, since the vast majority of these supplies are dedicated to babies with the disease.

“If people can donate, now is the time, because when we have more stocks, we can outsmart the medically vulnerable,” she said.

Parents are also turning to online breast-exchange forums to meet their babies’ needs.

Amanda Kastelein, mother of three from Middlebury, Conn., has been supplementing her 10-month-old Emerson’s needs with breast milk from a mom she found on a peer-to-peer Facebook page called Human Milk 4 Human Babies Special formula milk powder. .

Kastelein stopped breastfeeding after repeated infections, but tried to start breastfeeding again in March after a recall of formula, with little success.

“Emerson is allergic to most formulas, so it’s hard to find something he’s not allergic to,” she said.

Hannah Breton of Naugatuck, Connecticut, stepped up the ladder, producing more milk than her 2.5-month-old son needs. She gives Kastelein about 60 ounces of milk every two weeks. That’s enough to replenish her formula supply and keep Emerson full.

“She asked a bunch of questions — what medication am I taking, if anything, that sort of thing,” Breton said. “So we decided, ‘Okay, this is perfect.’ So, she would come every few weeks and pick up the milk I’d been saving for her.”

“I did find it helpful,” she added. “I can give a mum who can’t find what she wants, it’s exciting and rewarding, and if her son can’t take formula, I mean, it’s scary.

Rebecca Heinrich, director of the Colorado Breast Milk Bank, advises those looking for milk that finding a donor on their own can be risky.

“We want to make sure these moms are as safe as possible and meet their babies’ needs, so consulting with their healthcare provider on how to meet those needs is the best way to go,” she said.

The shortage has created difficulties for low-income families after formula maker Abbott recalled it over contamination concerns. The recall depletes many of the brands covered by WIC, a federal program such as food stamps for women, infants and children, although it now allows branded alternatives.

On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to the head of Abbott Laboratories expressing what he called “serious concerns about the availability of safe infant formula,” noting Abbott’s holdings of infant formula in the federal WIC program contract. Vilsack asked Abbott to continue offering rebates for alternative products, including formula for competing brands, a program that has been running on a monthly basis. The White House said Friday that Abbott had committed to offering rebates by the end of August.

The Biden administration says it is working with states to make it easier for WIC recipients to buy different sizes of formula that their benefits may not currently cover.

Abbott said it could restart a manufacturing site “within two weeks” pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The company will first produce EleCare, Alimentum and Metabolism formulas, and then start Similac and other formulas. Once production begins, it takes six to eight weeks for formula to hit shelves.

On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase production and simplify paperwork to allow more imports.

US News.

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