‘We fly by formula’: Rural shortage harms rural families at WIC

CANNON FALLS, Minnesota – Two months after giving birth, Jennifer Magee noticed a change in her baby’s feeding routine that scared her: she started drinking more formula every hour.

Increased appetite is normal for growing babies, including Magee’s daughter, Aubrey. But amid the national formula shortage, Magee, 25, had just one container left, barely enough to last three days.

“We’re flying through the formula,” Magee said as the shortage worsened in May. “I’m afraid we won’t have it for her soon if we don’t have stock.”

Finding more would not be an easy task.

Magee faced the same strain that many parents have experienced in recent months when searching for a formula. But she felt added stress as she relies on the special supplemental nutritional assistance program for women, infants and children known as WIC — a government-funded initiative designed to help low-income women buy food, including baby food.

Her daughter was born in March, long after pandemic-related supply chain problems began to affect formula availability, and just weeks after baby food manufacturer Abbott Nutrition shut down production at its Michigan plant and recalled multiple formulas, pushing delivery further. disturbed. In May, FDA officials predicted the shortage would persist through the end of July.

For Magee and other parents living near state lines, especially those in rural communities with limited and distant shopping options, WIC’s restrictions further exacerbate the deficit.

Magee, a resident of Bay City, Wisconsin, must shop at a store authorized by her state to accept WIC benefits. Unlike people who receive money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, another aid for low-income families, WIC recipients cannot use their benefits across state lines, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bay City is a village of approximately 400 residents on the western edge of Wisconsin, across the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota, with approximately 16,500 residents. Bay City has no WIC-approved supermarkets. Red Wing — less than 10 miles to the west — has three WIC-approved stores, but Magee can’t take advantage of her Wisconsin benefits.

Instead, she drives nearly 50 miles to a WIC-approved Walmart Supercenter in Menomonie, Wisconsin, in search of the hypoallergenic formula her daughter needs.

While the formula shortage doesn’t just affect WIC families, it “expands the inequalities that low-income families have faced for years,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, the nonprofit organization that develops WIC policies. programs. †

Typically, WIC recipients have a special formula that they can purchase with their benefits as part of what the program is called a “food packageFollowing the Abbott Nutrition recall, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a list of replacements for families whose designated formula was one of the recalled.

Nutramigen, the formula Magee used to soothe her daughter’s milk sensitivity, wasn’t recalled, but that hasn’t made it any easier to find, as the shortage sparked a nationwide battle for other brands. Every time Magee drove to Menomonie for Nutramigen, she took a “wild guess” that she might find one.

She didn’t.

In May, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services suggested that families navigating the shortage check smaller grocery and drug stores and search shopping websites before going in person. Still, some smaller stores don’t accept WIC, and what’s online may not reflect what’s on the shelf. Like most states, Wisconsin does not allow WIC families to shop online with their benefits.

“Sometimes that’s a barrier because of the cost of transportation,” said Brittany Mora, the WIC director for Pierce County, where Magee lives, as she reflected on the number of trips families have taken in search of formula — mainly because gas prices have risen

It would take a 65-mile round trip for Magee to check the four WIC-approved stores in her county.

Similar challenges have arisen for women receiving WIC in Minnesota. State WIC director Kate Franken said the families who come to her program for support sometimes don’t have a car.

Although Minnesota, like Wisconsin, now offers WIC recipients imported formulas to increase their options, the additions don’t help all families equally because they are standard milk-based formulas and cannot be consumed by babies with any sensitivities, Franken said. .

Those are babies like Magee’s daughter.

When Magee realized she couldn’t rely on her WIC benefits to get immediate access to hypoallergenic formula, she turned to family for help.

On May 23, Magee’s mother-in-law, Geralyn Laurie, turned to Facebook and asked for help finding a formula for her granddaughter. She offered to pay for cans and shipping.

Within weeks, 26 cans of hypoallergenic formula had made their way to the end of the farmland-lined gravel road leading to Laurie’s home in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, about 30 miles west of Bay City.

“Everyone, I think, wants to help, and several people were like, ‘I’m in,'” she said.

By the time her granddaughter was 3 months old, Laurie had spent over $455 on bottle feeding.

Magee should still be able to use her WIC benefits to feed her daughter.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs on KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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