Vulnerable hit hardest by formula shortage

Advocates seek flexibility in federal nutrition assistance program

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., joined Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., to introduce a bill that would provide flexibilities for low-income families on WIC to purchase a wider variety of infant formula during supply chain disruptions.
 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., joined Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., to introduce a bill that would provide flexibilities for low-income families on WIC to purchase a wider variety of infant formula during supply chain disruptions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 18, 2022 at 6:03pm, Updated at 10:05pm

Even as the House passed legislation Wednesday to provide $28 million aimed at helping to ease a baby formula shortage that has sent families scrambling, it also tried to address a second issue: easing the shortage’s impact on low-income families who use the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC.

Late Wednesday, the House passed 231-192 the bill to provide the new funding for the Food and Drug Administration’s infant formula safety and inspection capabilities.

The House also passed 414-9 a measure that backers hope will prevent low-income families from experiencing formula shortages ever again. The bill would extend WIC infant formula flexibilities that the Biden administration was only able to recently trigger because of the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency.

House action comes as President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the 1950 Defense Production Act to require suppliers to prioritize and provide the needed resources to formula manufacturers to increase production. Biden also directed the Health and Human Services and Agriculture departments to use military commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula in order to get it to store shelves faster. 

“Parents are not quite in panic mode yet. But they’re frantic,” said Mark Corkins, a professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee in Memphis and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.

WIC funds half of all the formula purchases nationwide, and Abbott Nutrition’s formula products serve roughly 90 percent of all infants participating in WIC, according to the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service. Roughly 43 percent of baby formula supply was out of stock as of May 8, according to a market analysis from Datasembly.

While WIC has traditionally included limitations on which formulas parents can buy under the program, on May 13, the USDA urged states to offer families using WIC “maximum flexibility” when it comes to purchasing infant formula on benefit. These flexibilities include allowing states to offer alternative sizes, forms and brands of formula on WIC and allowing stores to accept exchanges of formula purchased with WIC benefits. 

But those flexibilities are only possible because the United States is currently under a public health emergency, and without the ongoing pandemic emergency, lawmakers would have had to pass legislation to allow for the WIC formula flexibilities, or the Biden administration would have to take executive action, according to a Senate aide.

In recent days, pediatricians have said they’ve noticed a run on baby formula because parents are growing more and more concerned about shortages. Many retailers, including Target, Walgreens and CVS, are capping how many cans of formula a person can buy.

Unlike other food recalls, infant formula represents a major and exclusive food supply for infants, meaning a lack of access to formula could create long-term health implications for babies, said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association. 

“It will take a whole-of-community effort — including the ongoing partnership of retailers, WIC providers, and food banks — to plug the gaps as we wait for manufacturer promises to translate to stock on the shelves,” Dittmeier said. 

Congress takes action

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working to give WIC permanent flexibility so families that use WIC benefits have access to more kinds of formula for the long term, regardless of whether a public health emergency is in place. 

The WIC bill introduced by Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., and Education and Labor Committee Committee Chair Robert C. Scott, D-Va., Wednesday — and passed by the House later that day — will likely be accompanied by a companion bill introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he wanted the Senate to try and pass Stabenow’s legislation via unanimous consent, since it has broad bipartisan support.

This is something that should bring us all together. As quickly as possible,” Stabenow said Wednesday evening on the Senate floor.