Chicago parents on government assistance face red tape when searching for baby formula

Politicians have taken steps to alleviate baby formula shortages, but obstacles persist, especially for those who rely on government assistance.

Tania Huerta holds a
Chicago resident Tania Huerta, 33, holds her 6-month old baby. Araceli Gomez-Aldana / WBEZ
Tania Huerta holds a
Chicago resident Tania Huerta, 33, holds her 6-month old baby. Araceli Gomez-Aldana / WBEZ

Chicago parents on government assistance face red tape when searching for baby formula

Politicians have taken steps to alleviate baby formula shortages, but obstacles persist, especially for those who rely on government assistance.

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Twins Amalia and Amelia Leon weighed just under three pounds each when they were born in February. They were premature and their mother said they spent 12 weeks in the newborn intensive care unit before they were discharged.

During their hospital stay, the twins were given Enfamil premature baby formula. Now, due to a shortage of baby formula across the country, their mother, Tania Huerta, said she spends hours a day looking for baby formula.

She’ll check online at stores like Target to see if they have any in stock, but by the time she gets there she said it’s often gone.

“The struggle is constant throughout the week. I remember one night I went to like eight different Walgreens trying to find a formula and I only found one can,” said Huerta, who lives in Chicago’s Southwest Side with her husband, a 6 year-old daughter and the twins. “I have two babies, they go through one can in about a day and a half.”

Supply chain problems and the shutdown of an Abbott Nutrition baby formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan, contributed to a shortage of formula across the country. For months, parents have struggled to find baby formula, but the problem has been heightened for those who rely on government assistance. Those under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — better known as WIC — are also dealing with the program’s red tape on top of supply shortages.

WIC provides food assistance to pregnant women, new mothers and young children. As of March 2022, there were 43,568 babies in Illinois on the WIC program, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.

If a family needs baby formula, they’re given a set number of cans to purchase each month. In Huerta’s case, she gets 10 cans of formula per baby, so a total of 20 cans a month.

But the supply chain shortage has forced stores to limit the amount of cans each person can buy at a time. Huerta needs to purchase her 20 cans before her benefits end each month, but she said there have been months she can’t find enough.

“I’ve called the WIC office and asked if I can get an extension or can I roll them over because I can’t find any,” Huerta said. “And the answer has been, ‘No.’ ”

Instead, Huerta was forced to relinquish any cans she couldn’t find and purchase before her deadline.

But the problem doesn’t end there. The next month, if she needs more formula than her allotted amount, she’ll have to pay out of pocket for the baby formula.

Plus, the Chicago stores Huerta visits only allow her to purchase two cans per day.

Huerta and her husband have even tried a different tactic, but they were denied.

“We tried to have him walk in, and then I walk in after, but they’re not allowing that because they look at the last numbers on the WIC card,” Huerta said. “I tell them I have two babies, I gotta feed them and they say ‘no’ because there’s more babies out there…there’s more mothers out there.”

And the situation with the Abbott Nutrition baby formula plant in Michigan continues to evolve.

Severe weather forced Abbott Nutrition to pause production at a Michigan baby formula factory that had just restarted. The company said late Wednesday that production for its EleCare specialty formula has stopped, but it has enough supply to meet needs until more formula can be made.

Abbott said it needs to assess damage and re-sanitize the factory after severe thunderstorms and heavy rains swept through southwestern Michigan Monday evening. The company didn’t indicate how much damage the factory sustained.

Abbott had restarted the Sturgis, Michigan, factory on June 4 after it had been closed since February due to contamination.

Politicians have attempted to find solutions. In response to the baby formula shortage in March, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced the state “would ramp up programs to help families.”

In a statement, Pritzker’s office said the Illinois Department of Human Services will partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service to encourage retailers to set aside baby formula for families under the WIC program.

On June 1, the state made an adjustment to their WIC program temporarily allowing participants to buy products not previously authorized. The IDHS website also has a phone number parents can call if they are having difficulty finding baby formula.

President Joe Biden’s administration also invoked federal emergency rules to prioritize U.S. production and it’s easing import rules for foreign manufacturers to enhance supply.

Despite the political intervention, Huerta isn’t feeling any relief.

Many parents remain stuck slowly obtaining formula wherever they can find it. Parents, including Huerta, have turned to social media groups, milk banks and food banks.

As Huerta looked for options, she felt the strain of everything adding up. She battled with keeping her family safe during a pandemic, adjusting to rising costs of things because of inflation and gas prices going up. She said she needs relief, but she has little hope things will get better soon.

“There’s lots of kids out there right now depending on this formula. I’m terrified for my kids with them being premature, I just want to make sure that I protect them from anything,” Huerta said. “I do hope that in the near future that this can be resolved soon because my babies will still need formula for the next six months.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010.