Jewish families grapple with baby-formula shortage


By Channa Fischer

For months now, stores have been struggling to stock enough baby formula, even as manufacturers insist that they are producing at full capacity. In February, the Food and Drug Administration shut down a formula production facility run by Abbott Nutrition, which makes Similac, Alimentum and EleCare products, due to potential bacterial infections. That comes coupled with the nation’s other woes related to recovery from pandemic-related shutdowns and shipping delays, which has led to a crisis for families trying to find the proper nutrition for their infants and toddlers.

Empty shelves
Empty shelves in a New Jersey supermarket (Faygie Holt via JNS)

Parents in need have turned to social media for help, creating a sort of virtual community of formula-seekers. Posts on Facebook parenting groups range from those seeking to take any extra cans that other families have lying around to snapshots of empty grocery store shelves — and everything in between. Along with a photo of a drained aisle at Target, one parent wrote: “Finn can’t even have half of the options because they are toddler ones, and his tummy can’t handle. So if you see Similac Pro-Advance or the Up & Up version, please pick some up and I will come pick it up from you!” She continued, noting that “supply is so scarce, and it has slowly gotten worse … not knowing if there will be any available is becoming very real and very scary.”

Parents use baby formula for a variety of reasons. Some mothers are unable to breastfeed, and others have children with allergies to breast milk; allergies to certain types of formula are also common. The executive director of Project Ezrah, a nonprofit organization in New Jersey helping families in need, echoed the same sentiment as the worried parents on social media. As a parent herself, Rachel Krich described the formula shortage as “absurd” and “insane,” noting that she “never imagined it would get to the point in this country where we were unable to feed an entire demographic of people.”

Earlier this year, Project Ezrah combined with a baby gemach in Teaneck, N.J., a free community resource for parents in need of basic infant supplies. Krich said that since the merger, formula donations have slowly dwindled, as people are not stopping into what had been the gemach headquarters any longer.

“Normally, there have always been people donating and picking up formula; it’s one of those things that parents of infants have between receiving extras from the hospital and switching brands as they discover their child is sensitive to a certain ingredient,” she said. “There is always a lot of it on hand. But now, we’ve needed to put out a call to the community to donate.”

Krich added that typically, Project Ezrah maximizes formula sales and tends to stock up its supply when there is a good price. But this strategy has come to a halt as grocery stores struggle to meet the demands of formula-feeding parents, with the organization being extra careful not to take supplies from retail shelves.

“We don’t want to compete,” Krich said. “But we do want people to know that our resources are not needs-based in the financial sense; anyone and everyone struggling with access to formula are welcome to come to us and we will help them find whatever they are looking for.”

Project Ezrah is one of hundreds of Jewish groups raising awareness for the community’s formula needs. On the grassroots level, organizations have opened up their WhatsApp groups and email listservs to get the word out to as many people as possible with messages varying from calls for donations to local families selling extra formula cans on hand.

Other Jewish organizations have taken note of the ongoing conversation on social media and have plastered their pages with calls for formula donations. In one Instagram post, the Chicago Chesed Fund wrote: “The national baby formula shortage is affecting your very own neighbors. If you have any extra formula that you no longer need, please drop it off at our warehouse, and we will make sure it’s given to those who need it!” The post was accompanied by a picture of Enfamil formula and a graphic with the words “Please help!”

But despite the community-wide calls for donations, nonprofit organizations and food pantries have noted they just aren’t receiving anything — though not to the community’s fault.

“If nobody has it, then nobody has it,” said Michael Danzig, director of marketing at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey. “There is no supply to share.”

Congress has not taken the crisis lightly. On May 18, Congress introduced new bipartisan legislation urging the president to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase the manufacture of baby formula.

Shortly after this legislation was proposed, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would, in fact, invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure that suppliers focus on formula distributors and that the production of formula would become a top priority. Biden has also allocated the use of Defense Department aircraft to pick up formula from overseas.

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