Baby food shortages: Biden administration tries to help WIC families

Baby food shortages: Biden administration tries to help WIC families

About half of US infant formula is purchased by people taking advantage of state WIC perks, which allow them to get the formula for free but limit the type, size, and brand they can choose.

About 1.2 million infants participate in the WIC program, officially known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Each state has a contract with a single manufacturer. Abbott Nutrition, which is struggling with a massive recall of its formula, is the exclusive supplier of about half of WIC’s infants.
February’s recall has exacerbated shortages caused by ongoing supply chain issues, leaving all parents with fewer choices in many stores. President Joe Biden has come under fire for not addressing the issue sooner and for limited action.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday outlined the steps it has already taken to help low-income families, primarily by providing state waivers to give parents using WIC benefits more choices – if they can find other brands on the shelves and your babies can easily switch formula.

The waivers, approved since February, allow families to purchase alternative container sizes, including those that exceed typical maximums, and formula forms, as well as purchase alternative brands without medical certifications. The flexibility allows parents to have liquid concentrate or ready-to-use formula rather than just powder.

A third type of waiver allows stores to accept exchanges of formulas purchased with WIC benefits.

The agency urged all states to take advantage of the flexibilities, echoing a call from the White House on Thursday. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday sent a letter to state health commissioners reiterating the available exemptions.

Most states use all three waivers, but Michigan uses two and Illinois uses none. Ten states and Puerto Rico use an exemption.

The waivers help ease some of the pressure on low-income families, said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group.

“Parents would have the option to choose the formula that’s available, rather than just getting formulas that aren’t on the shelf,” she said.

Abbott, meanwhile, is paying rebates on its competitors’ products through August in states where WIC families are restricted from purchasing its formula. This means that parents can obtain baby food free of charge, regardless of the manufacturer. It also manages delivery from a manufacturing facility in Ireland to WIC families.

Abbott and Gerber ramp up production

Abbott said Friday it is working to increase shipments of formulas across the board by ramping up production at other facilities. Since February, the company says it has imported “millions of cans” of powdered infant formula into the United States from its Cootehill, Ireland facility. It has also rebuilt other production lines at a manufacturing facility in Columbus, Ohio to make more ready-to-feed Similac liquid formulation.

Additionally, the company claims to offer more generous coupons to enable consumers to purchase its products at a discounted price.

Meanwhile, Gerber said it has accelerated its efforts to produce more baby formula. It’s a self-proclaimed “small player” in the market.

“We have significantly increased the amount of our infant formula available to consumers by ramping up production and accelerating overall product availability for retailers and online, as well as in hospitals for those most at risk,” a Gerber spokesman said Friday to CNN.

CNN’s Brenda Goodman and Jen Christensen contributed to this story.

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