Phone calls from parents in search of infant formula have been coming in daily to the offices of the Women, Infants, & Children Program that serves the central and northern half of Berkshire County.
Call by call, staffers work to connect parents with this sorely needed source of nutrition, particularly in the case of families who require hypoallergenic formula.
They’ve contacted supermarkets on behalf of clients and even visited stores to help.
“Families have been working hard to obtain the supplies they need for their babies,” said Melissa King, program director for the WIC unit overseen by Berkshire Health Systems. “Participants … have traveled to and from all the stores in Berkshire County and beyond, even calling stores ahead of time to have them set cans aside for them.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate took steps that may help ease the stress for parents for whom breastfeeding isn’t an option, amid other actions taken by the federal government. Also Thursday, the Defense Department worked to line up commercial aircraft to fly supplies of Nestlé formula — about 246 pallets worth — from Switzerland to the U.S.
Separately, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of formula in the U.S.
The Senate passed a measure, already OK’d by the U.S. House, designed to give WIC programs access to a wider supply of infant formula. Roughly half of all infant formula purchased in the U.S. is paid for by federal benefits administered through WIC programs.
WIC clients receive vouchers that can be redeemed in stores for specific foods. However, those vouchers are linked to a particular brand of formula, part of an effort by states to secure discounts from manufacturers. The legislation allows the Department of Agriculture to waive requirements and let WIC clients buy whatever brand is available, according to The Associated Press.
King says that like parents around the country, clients locally have been having trouble obtaining formula, though she notes supplies have recently increased. King said she expected even more infant formula to become available in coming months.
“We are experiencing a significant formula shortage,” she said in a statement, in response to questions from The Eagle about the situation. “This is impacting all families, not just WIC families, both across the Commonwealth and the U.S.”
A spot check of grocery stores by The Eagle found formula available at some outlets.
The WIC program provides free education on health and nutrition, as well as “healthy food,” to qualifying Massachusetts families, from offices at 510 North St. in Pittsfield and 71 Hospital Ave. in North Adams.
In South County, WIC services are provided by CHP. Through a spokeswoman, the program declined to comment on the impact of the formula shortage, referring questions to the state Department of Public Health.
King, of the Berkshire North WIC program, says the problem can be different for families, depending on the kind of formula they need for their infants.
She said her staff has been contacting families who use the kinds of formulas affected by the recall of products from an Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan and advising them on other safe options that provide the same nutritional value.
The Michigan plant is expected to reopen next week, the head of the Food and Drug Administration official told lawmakers Thursday.
At the same time, WIC staff has coached families on safety amid the shortage, telling them, for instance, that it’s not safe to dilute formula to stretch the supply.
“The health and safety of our WIC participants is extremely important,” King said. “Especially during this time.”
She said the program has been able to expand formula offerings. “To meet infants’ nutritional needs,” she said, while acting “as a safety net for families.”
Given the national shortage, some expectant parents who work with the WIC program decided to breastfeed, King said, and have been successful at that with help from the program’s network.
One client who was feeding her infant with both breast milk and formula was able to shift away from use of formula entirely.
“Through working with breastfeeding support, [she] increased her milk supply so that she did not need to purchase formula,” King said.
For information on the Berkshire North WIC program, call 413-447-3495.