Baby formula shortage costing parents: 'It's a desperate situation for many families'

As the nationwide baby formula shortage has escalated, parents have been confronted with familiar problems seen throughout the pandemic: purchase restrictions, hoarding and price gouging.

Ashlyn Hensley was getting desperate.

In March, after scanning the aisles at the local Publix, Walmart, Winn-Dixie and six other stores for baby formula for her son, Jaxon, she returned home empty-handed. Online stores had also run dry. 

Jaxon’s allergies require a specific formula, and it's difficult for Hensley to get her hands on it. The WIC program – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – helps cover costs for the specialty formula but can't make more product appear out of thin air.  

“I've never really thought, as a new mom, I would be worrying about not being able to feed my baby,” Hensley said.   

“I've never really thought, as a new mom, I would be worrying about not being able to feed my baby,” says Alabama mom Ashlyn Hensley, with her 4-month-old son, Jaxon.

Determined not to let her son go hungry, the Alabama-based mom turned to Facebook groups with sellers offering formula at marked-up prices. She's far from the only parent paying more out of pocket just to get their hands on formula.

As the national baby formula shortage has escalated in recent months, parents have been confronted with familiar problems seen throughout the pandemic: purchase restrictions, hoarding, price gouging and nagging questions about the sacrifices required to make ends meet. In this case: feeding their children. 

“Across the board, searching for formula at this point has become a full-time job,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, the nonprofit advocacy arm of WIC. “Families are feeling that stress – both financially and in a time cost sense.”

Walmart shelves in Calera, Alabama on May 11, 2022.

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Why is there a limit on buying infant formula?

The baby formula shortage began in November 2021, when about 11% of popular brands were out of stock, according to data analytics firm Datasembly. As of May 8, 43% of baby formula was sold out at retailers across the U.S. because of recalls and supply chain strains.   

Retailers such as CVS, Target and Walmart have put purchase limits on formula, but Hensley said she has seen plenty of price gouging from online sellers with an abundance of product on hand.

“The size that (Jaxon) gets from WIC in our area is $33 a can, and I’ve seen people charge, just for that size, probably $45,” she said. 

Hensley said she was purchasing formula from third-party sellers in a Facebook group until a scammer sent her three 7-ounce tins – sample sizes that are usually given away – for $80 instead of the 30-ounce cans that had been shown in the listing.

Though Hensley noted there are good actors online offering to share formula at little to no cost, USA TODAY found online groups selling free sample sizes for $10 a tin. 

“They're overcharging for something we are suffering trying to get, just so they can make a profit,” Hensley said. “Who does that?”

White House press secretary Jen Pskai said Thursday that President Joe Biden's administration is calling on the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to crack down on any price gouging, including "third-party sellers reselling formula at steep prices." It also is urging states to allow customers more flexibility on what types of formula they can buy through WIC. 

Baby formula shortage 'a desperate situation' for many

Baby formula is just the latest financial stressor for the Hensley family. Their rent increased $100 this year, her husband’s 40-mile commute to work is much more costly now that gas prices are up, and overall inflation rates are making just about everything else cost more. 

“It’s sucking the life out of everyone financially,” Hensley said. “I'm only 27. I've never had to deal with anything like this. I don't like it.”

Shelves typically stocked with baby formula sit mostly empty at a store May 10 in San Antonio, Texas. Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula because supply disruptions and a safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves.

Dittmeier said many families, especially those that are low-income, are under more financial stress because of the shortage. Because WIC is not yet equipped to handle online shopping and many families can no longer find eligible formulas in store, some are having to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or pay out of pocket, which "puts stress on the rest of the household." 

“It is a desperate situation for many families,” Dittmeier said.

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Parents search for formula alternatives

Natalee Allen, 24, a new mom based in the Dallas-Fort-Worth area, said she also has had to pay more to feed her 8-month-old daughter. 

She used to buy the Sam’s Club generic formula, which cost her less than 50 cents an ounce. Low supply made her switch to the name-brand formula Enfamil, which costs more than double when measured by price per ounce.

“You can't really find anything on the shelf except for the super-expensive, organic, hippie-dippie fancy formula,” Allen said. “The average American cannot afford to feed their baby if they're paying $40 for a tiny tin of formula.”

Mallory Young, 29, a new mom based in Northern Virginia, is switching her 11-month-old to toddler formula. It was the only hypoallergenic option available that wasn't the expensive, ready-to-feed version.

Mallory Young, 29, is switching her 11-month-old to toddler formula. It was the only affordable hypoallergenic option she could find.

The toddler formula is not Young's first choice, because she's less familiar with it – "I don't know anyone who's done toddler formula," she told USA TODAY – but the brand says the product is safe for infants 9 months and older. 

“We just didn't know what else to do,” she said. “We don't want to like take infant formula for those who are much younger who don't really have that alternative. … We'll have to see how he tolerates it."

Other parents have resorted to more dangerous alternatives. Hensley has been recommended goat milk, and Allen had a friend on Instagram share a recipe for formula.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration caution against making baby formula at home. Goat and cow milk also are considered unsafe for infants less than 1 year old. 

That leaves parents like Young with very few options.

"There is no other alternative except for breast milk. If you're not breastfeeding, there is no other alternative," Young said. "It's a very terrifying thought."

Hensley said she switched to formula for both her and her son's well-being after experiencing severe pre- and postpartum depression and anxiety. Hensley said she has seen "a lot of hate" from people judging parents who aren't breastfeeding during the shortage.  

"A lot of us don't have that option (to breastfeed) because of medical reasons, mental health issues," she said. "It's not fair for us to be attacked like that when all we want to do is feed our babies."

You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.