Toppenish Safeway

The baby formula isle inside the Toppenish Safeway sits nearly empty Monday, June 6. 

Rosa Alvarez of Sunnyside, like many parents, has faced challenges navigating the nationwide shortage of baby formula. Her youngest has a sensitive digestive system, which makes it difficult to find formula 10-month-old Ivanna will tolerate.

With gas prices skyrocketing to all-time highs, she’s had to make more trips to the grocery store to find formula, putting further financial strain on her family. She homeschools and cares for her family’s six children while her husband works full-time.

“It’s hard now because I can’t buy all the milk in one trip, I have to make double trips. My oldest is 9 so it’s hard for me to leave the house so often,” Alvarez said.

The baby formula shortage, which started in February after Abbott Nutrition began recalling cans of its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare brand infant formula, has caused parents to take to unconventional means to ensure their children are properly fed.

The recall came after a Food and Drug Administration investigation into four babies with uncommon bacterial infections who had been consuming products originating from the Abbott plant in Sturgis, Mich. The plant halted production in March for a six-week-long investigation.

The company has said its products have not been directly linked to the infections. FDA inspectors found a number of violations at the plant, including bacterial contamination, a leaky roof and lax safety protocols, the Associated Press reported. The FDA has been criticized for its handling of the case.

Per an agreement with the FDA, Abbott Nutrition began producing formula again in its Michigan plant on June 4. The FDA warns it will not be until at least mid-July that stores across the country will be fully stocked.

Trying alternative solutions

Alvarez said keeping up with Ivanna’s nutritional needs has been nearly impossible, and she’s tried multiple angles to find formula that works.

“For the last few months we’ve had to rely on friends willing to share some of their formula. Not too long ago I opted to change brands of formula altogether and order a new brand that’s sold in Mexico but not in the U.S. through Amazon,” Alvarez said.

To her dismay but not surprise, the Mexican alternative made her daughter sick.

“The Mexican formula didn’t take. I scheduled an appointment with her (Ivanna’s) pediatrician and they recommended that we go back to the brand she was using before.”

Returning to the pediatrician-prescribed Gerber product Ivanna had grown accustomed to would be complicated. Even with financial assistance from WIC, Alvarez said she’ll go as long as seven days without being able to get her hands on the right formula for her daughter.

To fill in the gaps between days without formula, Alvarez has started integrating more solid foods into Ivanna’s diet. With her first birthday less than two months away, Alvarez has recently made the decision to wean Ivanna onto lactose-free milk.

Looking past the recall

Gabrielle Frank, a dietician for the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic’s Woman, Infants and Children program said one factor still contributing to the shortage is the apprehension parents feel toward buying from brands affected by the recall. Similac and other brands earlier affected by the recall that are on store shelves now are safe to buy and consume, officials have said.

“We do hear from families that they are able to find options … like Similac Advance and Similac Sensitive and those were some of the initial formulas included in the recall. However, we reassure families that anything that is able to be purchased at the store is safe,” Frank said. “That is not recalled formula … all of that has been removed. But of course, there is still a little bit of fear from families understandably about that initial recall.”

This apprehension can be seen in pharmacy and store shelves across Toppenish and Sunnyside where cans of Similac and other brand affected by the recall can be found by the dozens alongside barren shelves once containing competing products. With formula Out Of Stock rates getting as high as 90% in Washington, the newer batches of formula not affected by the recall may be among the only option left for parents.

For its part, Frank said WIC has been able to expand the types of formulas it covers from fewer than 10 to more than 60, making it easier for families who receive benefits from WIC to find formula.

Assistance for parents

While Frank was prepared for the influx of calls from parents looking for assistance in purchasing formula, she was surprised by an increased interest from parents looking for breastfeeding guidance to decrease the need for formula altogether. Though more of a long term solution, Frank, who is also the breastfeeding promotion coordinator for the Yakima and Wapato WIC offices, said getting breastfeeding rates up in the county could help prevent widespread dependence on formula.

For parents skeptical to feed their babies using the brands subject to the recall, Frank suggested boiling water before adding it to the formula to help sterilize the formula itself.

Information on the recall is available on the Department of Health’s website in Spanish and English. YVFWC WIC workers are trained in English and Spanish, Frank said.

WIC also has trained staff available to help anyone who is using breastmilk and formula for their baby who wants to do more breastfeeding. People who aren’t on WIC can reach out to their health care provider for support, the DOH said.

Santiago Ochoa’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s city editor.

(1) comment


Be sure to thank Patty Murray for her leadership creating our current economic situation..

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