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Baby formula shortage less acute in Champaign, but tough for food insecure families

Signs at the CVS Pharmacy at the corner of Neil and Green streets point baby formula customers to pick up products from the checkout counter. The signs say the store will hand out a maximum of three bottles per customer while it works to refill stock.

CHAMPAIGN – While the nationwide shortage of infant formula is less severe in Champaign County than elsewhere, it has hit low-income families hardest – because of state policy.

Brandon Meline is the director of maternal and child health at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. He says the relatively high number of grocery stores and pharmacies in the area means that parents should be able to find formula somewhere nearby.

“If you have transportation issues — or let’s say you have to take the bus to get to your pharmacy or grocery store location — if you call ahead, a lot of places are happy to let you know about stock,” Meline says.

According to Meline, about three to four families call the public health district daily to get help on where to find baby food. He says these calls started about three weeks ago.

Parents nationwide have struggled to find infant formula, after Abbott Laboratories recalled Similac, Similac Alimentum and EleCare powder formulas made at its Sturgis, Mich. plant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been investigating unsanitary conditions at the facility. 

While many families can easily switch to equivalent store brands to Similac, low-income families that rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s WIC program cannot.

About 3,000 low-income families in Champaign County use federal WIC benefits to pay for baby formula and other food, according to Meline.

Meline says families can only use WIC to purchase certain brands. This gives families less flexibility in a shortage.

“Every state typically has a brand contract for their WIC participants. So, you know, if you’re a Similac state, and Similac’s out, then that’s obviously going to be an issue,” Meline says.

The Biden administration is encouraging states to pause that monopoly during the current crisis.

Meline expects the shortage to last another six to eight weeks, at minimum.

Families who need help finding baby formula can find information on the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District’s social media pages. WIC program participants can call for help using the number on the back of their WIC card.

Meanwhile, Abbott Laboratories said on Monday that it had agreed to enter into a federal consent decree that would allow it to reopen its plant at Sturgis. The company says that, pending FDA approval, the plant could resume making infant formula within two weeks. 

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt

Harrison Malkin contributed reporting. 

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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