Hunting for baby formula, women turn to pregnancy centers
Pro-life pregnancy centers are helping mothers in need, but many facilities have run short of formula themselves
On a Wednesday in May, a young woman walked into ChristyAnne Collins’ Texas City, Texas, pregnancy center, a toddler on her hip and baby twins in a stroller. Collins recognized her: Years ago she had been a regular in the center’s earn-while-you-learn program, where moms who watched parenting videos and completed homework assignments would earn “baby bucks” they could cash in for wipes and diapers and cans of baby formula. Collins said this woman used to buy baby formula every week with her baby bucks.
She hadn’t been back for a while when Collins saw her again that day. Although the woman now has a job, a national shortage in baby formula brought her back to the Pregnancy and Parenting Support Center, which typically has 100 to 200 cans in stock. This time, though, the center didn’t have the formula she needed.
“We are down to nothing,” Collins told me May 16.
The national shortage has left many parents unable to find formula to feed their babies, and some are turning to local pro-life pregnancy ministries for help. While some pregnancy centers with an excess supply have been able to give cans away to families in their communities, others like Collins’ are either low or completely out of stock.
Pandemic restrictions and lockdowns slowed the production of formula in the United States. Then in February, Abbott, maker of the popular brand Similac, recalled formula produced at a facility in Sturgis, Mich., and connected to multiple cases of bacterial infections in infants. As a result, pregnancy centers across the country had to discard cans of Similac that donors had either given to them or paid for. Heather Lawless, director of Reliance Center in Lewiston, Idaho, said her facility lost six cans. Sarah Bowen, executive director of the Promise of Life Network in Pennsylvania, said her centers removed about 50 cans from their shelves. Collins estimated she disposed of more than 70 cans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered the Michigan plant to close after an inspection found bacteria in the facility. Since then, stock of formula on store shelves has declined even further, becoming almost inaccessible in some regions.
Some pregnancy centers, though, are prepared to help their communities for a while longer. Staffers at Bowen’s centers in Pennsylvania said that through the generosity of donors and moms in their program, every formula need has been met so far, and they still have about 20 cans left between their four offices. A pregnancy center in Hillsdale, Mich., announced in a May 12 news release that it had an excess of formula due to a drop in clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, the staff has advertised the free formula in Facebook posts.
Jeri Lynn Scott, the director of a pregnancy center in San Antonio, Texas, said her facility hasn’t run out of formula yet because one of its major donors is an Enfamil sales rep and donated a few hundred cans last year. Her center on May 16 started a baby drive for local families to pick up free cans of formula along with other items like diapers and wipes.
But many other centers, like Collins’, have run out.
The Texas City pregnancy center usually keeps around 15 to 20 kinds of formula in stock. Collins said the last donation her team received came about three weeks earlier, when a mother — one of the center’s clients — donated three extra cans of formula purchased with her coupons through the government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
Collins estimated the Pregnancy and Parenting Support Center receives 15-20 calls a day from families looking for baby formula. On top of that, up to 10 women stop by on a given day to ask in person, a massive increase from roughly two to three drop-ins per week before the shortage.
“We just have a constant parade of women coming to the door, just saying ‘WIC sent me here to see if you guys have any formula,’ ” she said. The woman who arrived with her twins and toddler in May was one of the women sent by WIC. Collins said she was also one of the multiple women who have broken down in tears when they realized the center could not help. “These moms are so distraught that there’s nowhere to meet the need of their baby,” she said, adding that it’s been “heartbreaking to our staff and volunteers.”
One nearby center in Friendswood, Texas, confirmed that it only had a few cans left as of May 17 — only because a client dropped them off earlier that day to share with other moms.
Most of the pregnancy centers I spoke with had not heard of pregnant women blaming the baby formula shortage as a reason to consider abortion, but Lawless said she’d heard that from one woman: “She was just talking about all the reasons why abortion was a best choice for her.” When they discussed how the pregnancy center could help her with practical needs, Lawless said, the young woman retaliated by pointing out the staff can’t even find baby formula.
Lawless, Collins, and other pregnancy center workers have told mothers about alternative options to discuss with their pediatricians, such as breastfeeding, goat milk, or in some cases transitioning to cow milk if the baby is old enough not to be harmed by it.
But being unable to meet the immediate need is an uncomfortable and unusual position for many pregnancy centers. “It’s extremely emotional when you see a mother wanting to provide for her child and no matter what she does, she can’t,” said Collins. “We’ve got the reputation in the community of being the go-to organization when a mother needs assistance. And they come to us, and we can’t help them.”
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