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The San Antonio Food Bank is trying to help families find baby formula

Brian Kirkpatrick | Texas Public Radio

As foreign baby formula begins to arrive in the United States to ease a shortage of the essential baby food product here, the San Antonio Food Bank is trying to help families who can’t find any formula anywhere.

Vanessa San Miguel doesn’t usually go to the Food Bank but the nationwide formula shortage has held her in a vice since an Abbott formula recall in February left grocery store shelves empty. Her now seven-month old son Adrian needed to eat, and his typical formula was nowhere to be found.

So I went to his doctor asking her, ‘What can we do?’ She gave me some samples that lasted maybe over a week.” San Miguel said. “After the week, I couldn't find any more. Going crazy everywhere. Going to Walmart, H-E-B, Target, Walgreens, CVS – nothing.”

So she started buying whatever kind of formula she could find, whenever she could find it.

And that was hard because his digestion system, he was throwing up, he was constipated,” she said. “Then it got to the point where he was able to digest it and keep it in and actually have a bowel movement. So it took about a month for his body to get used to that formula.”

But when the choice comes down to using a different formula or nothing, parents must use a different formula. If the grocery store doesn’t have any formula, the Food Bank is their next step.

Vanessa San Miguel and her son Adrian at the San Antonio Food Bank.
Bonnie Petrie/TPR
Vanessa San Miguel and her son Adrian at the San Antonio Food Bank.

George Andrade, who works in client services at the Food Bank, opened three drawers in a large metal cabinet and showed TPR what remained of the organization's entire supply of baby formula.

Now, I'd say from the number from the count that we did this morning, I want to say maybe about 70 cans,” he explained.

Andrade said the Food Bank was rationing the formula. “We are trying to help as many families as we can,” he said. “I think right now I believe we are limiting one per child.”

This is difficult for an organization that says part of its mission is ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry.

Melanie McGuire, the Food Bank’s program director, shook her head at the cabinet.

We have this large, state of the art warehouse that accommodates pallets, and you're pulling out a drawer. Right. And so that just gives you the challenge and the scale that we're working on as food banks,” she explained. “We're not used to working at this small of a scale. Generally, you can go to a warehouse and see one, two, three pallets of different items to choose from, and now we're limiting it to drawers.”

This meager supply will be gone quickly, McGuire warned.

We have it today, so take it, but we don't know if we'll have it tomorrow,” she said.

The San Antonio Food Bank's supply of baby formula.
Bonnie Petrie/TPR
The San Antonio Food Bank's supply of baby formula.
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Uncertainty is the real challenge in dealing with the shortage. McGuire said it’s the result of a perfect storm of events.

“We’ve got supply chain challenges of just products like formula in general on top of recalls, on top of high demand,” she said. “And so when you put those all together and the inability to procure that stuff at a grocery store, it really put families in this tailspin.”

Many parents have been forced to get into their cars, drive throughout the city and hunt for formula, which is distressing and gets expensive.

And just the frustration of high gas prices to go to a store and only find out that there's no formula there or that’s not what they need,” McGuire said.

That leads some of them to visit the Food Bank, where they join families who regularly rely on the organization.

So we have families that need formula even when there is not a shortage because they simply just have challenge around affording that type of need and may have a child that needs that,” she explained. “And then we've got families that are like, ‘if there was formula at the grocery store today, I wouldn't be here.’ So it's really balancing those two levels of need. …”

McGuire said this essential food shortage has been very hard on Food Bank staffers.

We’re here as a response mechanism.” She said it’s most difficult when they can’t explain to families why that item they need the most is not available.

“It's just … difficult in a way that is heart wrenching to know that we have … this need that we can't fill,” McGuire added.

But as hard as it may be for them, it’s much worse for families.

San Miguel, Adrian’s mother, feels that desperation. She’s worried her son will get sick, or worse.

My biggest fear is that my son might starve because of no formula,” she said.

McGuire said President Joe Biden’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase baby formula manufacturing and to import more than 70,000 pounds of formula over the weekend will help.

It's a ripple effect. It's oftentimes that manufacturers can begin to ramp up production that we begin to see in the marketplace,” McGuire said. “And then it eventually trickles into the charitable food models and food banks and food pantries. And so my hope is that as the grocery stores begin to replenish, then it also helps our supply begin to replenish.

McGuire also has a request for people who want to do their part to help: Do not go to a store and buy formula to donate to the Food Bank. That will only make the store’s shortage even worse.

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