Chattanooga families struggle to find baby formula amid nationwide shortage

Heather Price tried four different types of formula before finding one that agreed with her 7-month-old son's sensitive stomach. Now she's one of many Chattanooga mothers going to great lengths - and paying high prices - amid a nationwide shortage to obtain baby formula, which is the only recommended source of nutrition for infants who aren't exclusively breastfed.

Ongoing supply chain issues because of the COVID-19 pandemic were compounded after a major formula manufacturer issued a safety recall in February and paused production, leaving retailers with far fewer formula options to stock the shelves.

Figures from Datasembly, which tracks grocery and retail pricing records, reported by the Wall Street Journal this week ranked Tennessee among the states experiencing the worst formula shortage with more than half of its supply out of stock as of May 1.

Price was receiving formula through a monthly delivery subscription until the company told her Nutramigen, the hypoallergenic powdered formula that her son uses, was no longer available. She was down to her last can after the amount of locally available formula dropped dramatically this month.

"When we see it in a store, we grab it. But within the last two weeks, I've not seen it on the shelves," Price said.

Like many other frantic mothers, Price is turning to friends and mothers' groups on social media for help. She's had people in Georgia, Alabama and as far away as Ohio offer to send her formula. But as with other groceries, inflation had driven the cost of formula already so high that the added cost of shipping isn't always financially feasible.

A small can of formula used to cost her roughly $19 but now it's nearly $40.

"We can only afford so much at a time," said Price, who's a teacher.

(READ MORE: House Dems propose $28 million to address formula shortage)

Jada Perdue, whose 6-month-old daughter also uses Nutramigen, said she recently went to seven different stores in Chattanooga looking for the formula only to come up empty-handed. She might have to resort to switching brands.

"It took us six months to find the formula that works for her, and then this happens," she said. "If I can't find it anywhere, I'm going to have to try and find something close to it just so she can eat."

Perdue is worried that if she can't find another brand of hypoallergenic formula the constipation and "constant spitting up" that used to plague her daughter will return.

Price said friends and family members in smaller towns have had better luck finding the formula, but they're still limited to buying one or two cans at a time. In the coming days, she'll be driving to Dunlap and Pelham, Tennessee, to pick up formula.

Baby formula guidance

American Academy of Pediatrics guidance for parents struggling to find baby formula:— Watering down baby formula is dangerous and can cause nutritional imbalances that may lead to serious health problems. Always mix formula as directed by the manufacturer.— Homemade baby formulas are not advised. While recipes may seem healthy, they are not safe and do not meet your baby’s nutritional needs.— Only buy baby formula online from trusted sources, such as well-recognized distributors and pharmacies.— Be leery of ads on social media. You can check out a company’s reputation through the Better Business Bureau at www.bbb.org.— Do not use imported formulas from other countries that are not reviewed by the FDA.— Only prepare the amount of formula you will use and throw out any infant formula that is left in the bottle after feeding your baby.— It is recommended that during the shortage you buy no more than a 10-day to two-week supply of formula.Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

Though health professionals recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old, data show that only 1 in 4 babies in the U.S. solely breastfeed at that age, leaving millions of infants in the United States reliant on formula.

Dr. Andrea Goins, medical director of newborn nurseries at Erlanger Children's Hospital, said there are many different reasons why babies can't or don't breastfeed, including illness, maternal medication or because some babies need specialized formula because of allergies, genetic or metabolic disorders.

Culture and environment, such as work conditions that make it difficult for mothers to pump, also play a major role.

(READ MORE: For new moms, returning to work can create nursing challenges)

Price, a breast cancer survivor who underwent surgery as part of her treatment, said breastfeeding was never an option for her.

"People don't understand that not everyone can breastfeed," she said.

Goins is "significantly concerned" about low-income families as well as those who may lack transportation or face additional barriers to getting formula.

"Groceries just in general have gone up, so the cost of getting those things is much more difficult, and the formula shortage means that families are driving to multiple different places looking for it," Goins said. "I don't have a good answer for them, unfortunately."

(READ MORE: US allows more baby formula imports to fight shortage)

Dr. Aileen Litwin, a pediatrician at Hitchcock Family Medicine, said she and the practice manager who both have young children got the idea to open a "formula bank" after noticing the widespread concern - and willingness on the part of others to share - on mothers' groups on social media.

Hitchcock Family Medicine started accepting formula requests and donations Tuesday at its location on 3875 Hixson Pike. Donation hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Families can fill out a formula request form online at hitchcock.md. As donations start rolling in, staff will work to distribute formula to the babies who need it most.

"When we get a batch, what we'll do is either send an email or text message to the family that requested it and arrange a pickup date and time at our Hixson office," Litwin said, noting they plan to prioritize the younger infants and babies with specific medical needs.

"This is the most complicated for those infants who do have severe milk protein allergies, those who have gastrointestinal disorders that have very specific formula needs," she said.

Hitchcock staff will operate the formula bank as long as it's needed, Litwin said. In the meantime, she's encouraging people to not stockpile formula so that there's enough to go around and to check with their pediatrician or primary care provider if they get in a bind. It's especially important not to dilute or try to make formula at home.

"Nobody can validate or ensure that there's no bacteria in there or all the nutritional needs are going to be covered in the formula," she said.

Despite the current crisis, Litwin said she's encouraged and excited by how many people want to help.

"Families may have some spare formula that they're not going to be utilizing anymore, or people get samples all the time that just sit on the shelf," she said. "Maybe we can make it a little bit easier for all these people to connect instead of one mom asking in five different groups, seeing who responds and trying to coordinate. That is pretty stressful."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.