OAKLAND COUNTY

Group helps Detroit area families, especially WIC users, find baby formula

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Metro Detroit parents have taken to social media to help each other locate what little stock of infant formula remains on store shelves as the nationwide baby formula shortage is well into a fourth month.

Berkley parent Heather Chesnutt started the Detroit Area Formula Finders Facebook group last month because she wanted to help save parents time and money spent searching for formula since online inventories struggle to keep up with in-store stock.

“I thought of the idea of utilizing a Facebook group to connect caregivers with individuals that were out shopping and could just post a photo of the formula aisle while they were there, you know, being able to leverage somebody who's doing an everyday action to make them part of the solution and finding formula,” Chesnutt said. 

Heather Chesnutt, founder of Detroit Area Formula Finders, uses Facebook to look for and post locations of in-stock baby formula. Chesnutt collaborates with Honey for Moms, a group that runs a formula bank in Ferndale.

The group has grown to more than 2,000 members, and Chesnutt's efforts have since expanded. Parents post in the group offering formula they don’t need anymore, and others can post about specific brands they're searching for. Group administrators also source formula from local groups, including Honey for Moms in Ferndale and Rise Wellness Collaborative in Ann Arbor, which both have free formula libraries. 

The Formula Finders are among Facebook groups of varying sizes that started to crowd-source for formula in Metro Detroit. Others include "formula finders Southeast Michigan," "baby formula finder for Michigan" and "Metro Detroit - Finding Formula."

"It's wonderful to see Michiganders, and people in general, come together during these times of need to support each other," said Elizabeth Griem, a Sterling Heights mom whose children no longer rely on baby formula but helps other parents across several Facebook groups. "With the crowdsourcing information and letting people know, I know if there's ever a shortage on anything else there'll be another group that pops up."

Pontiac mom Averi Wilson, 28, was weathering the formula shortage until recently. She was connected with someone this past week who had extra formula via the Formula Finders Facebook group.

"There was a woman in the group that saw me posting about the trouble that I was having," Wilson said. "She sent me a message and said 'Hey, you know, I happen to have some extra formula that you're looking for if you want to come pick it up.'"

The shortage is partly the result of a February recall of products, including formula, made at the Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan linked to nine children’s deaths. Earlier this month, production was halted again at the Sturgis factory due to extensive flooding. 

Abbott has stopped production of its EleCare specialty formula and is doing clean-up, resanitizing and testing before it restarts production and distribution in what the company estimated would be  "a few weeks."

The pause of the Abbott plant is compounding a formula shortage that has been most dire for children with allergies, digestive problems and metabolic disorders who rely on specialty formulas. The Abbott factory is the only source of many of those products, providing nutrition to about 5,000 U.S. babies, according to federal officials.

WIC formula challenges

Half of the children born in Michigan receive benefits from the Women Infants and Children program, a federally funded initiative administered by the Michigan Department of Health to help low- and moderate-income families obtain affordable, nutritious food. WIC credits can be exchanged for Abbott baby formula brands and other foods at participating retailers.

Detroit area parents and children using WIC benefits face unique challenges in finding baby formula because WIC credits are only accepted in person at specific retailers where popular formulas are often out of stock and gas prices have been uncharacteristically high, parents say. 

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said about 85% of Michigan’s formula-fed WIC participants have been affected by the Abbott recall and they are prioritizing families' most critical and immediate needs. 

Chesnutt said one of the Formula Finders' main purposes is to help combat the additional challenges parents using WIC benefits face.

Big box chain stores that have not accepted WIC credits receive a large portion of the available baby formula, forcing several program users to pay for formula themselves, according to Metro Detroit parents. While the WIC program store locator says all Metro Detroit Costcos and Targets accept WIC benefits, several parents claim otherwise. 

Baby formula is stocked at the Honey for Moms, a group that runs a formula bank in Ferndale on Friday, June 24, 2022.

"Some of the places that would actually have some formula wouldn't accept WIC," said Dearborn resident Alyssa English, who had been searching for her daughter's hypoallergenic brand of formula. "The cans are really expensive, so I was actually having to pay out of pocket for her formula when I would find it."

Waterford Township resident Kasaundra Evens, 26, uses the Formula Finders Facebook group to find food for her 3-month-old son and said she wished more Costcos and Targets accepted her WIC credit. 

“I do have WIC and, yes, it is a challenge to find a formula. … Sometimes, I do have to purchase it with my own money if they're not accepted," Evens said. "I know at Costco they don't accept WIC, and I did find some at Costco and I had to pay out of my pocket."

Issues at big box stores

Pontiac resident Wilson said she experienced similar issues. While the Facebook updates about in-stock formula are helpful, it can be difficult to find the money to buy her baby's formula when many local Target and Costco locations don't accept WIC benefits, she said. 

"As the companies are finally able to start making more formula, they're sending them to the really popular big name stores and they're not sending it to the Spartan Foods on the corner, or the little corner family-owned grocery store," Wilson said. "Those are the places that accept WIC."

Target spokesperson Jessica Carlson told The Detroit News in an email that the company offers a number of payment options at their stores, including WIC, in nearly all states and is working with local agencies to expand WIC benefits to more stores and locations. Costco did not respond to requests for comment.  

Sutfin said any store, including large chains, can apply to be a WIC-authorized vendor in Michigan. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and approved based on a store's  ability to provide the minimum amount of WIC approved formula and the current number of vendor openings in a ZIP code, based on the number of WIC participants living there, she said.

Providing real-time updates

While parents previously resorted to driving around southeast Michigan in search of in-stock formula, $5-a-gallon gas prices have made this unfeasible for some families, especially those with low incomes. The Formula Finders group helps with this since shoppers provide real-time updates about in-stock formulas at local stores, Chesnutt said.

“I would dedicate a day to formula finding,” English said. “With the gas prices being so high, it's just expensive all around to drive around for a whole day. It's so time-consuming and costly.”

Since WIC benefits can only be used in person, retailers that put available stock online exclude a large percentage of people from accessing formula during the shortage, Chesnutt said. Sutfin confirmed that WIC credits cannot be used in online transactions in Michigan and said the state health department is researching how residents can do this soon.

"At a lot of stores like Walmart and stuff, my daughter's formula is available for shipping, and that's cool and all, but you can't use WIC for shipping," said Clinton Township resident Annie Gallagher, 27.

English was only able to find her daughter's brand of Nutramigen formula because of a posting in the Formula Finders' Facebook group. 

“I found it on the group about two weeks ago through a posting that another mom posted of the stock at the Allen Park Meijer," she said. "So I was able to find her two big cans of formula and it was really helpful because I'm searching everywhere for it and I couldn't find it.”

Gallagher, similarly, was recently struggling to find her daughter's formula and looked to the Formula Finders group. Chesnutt found her a couple of cans.

"It's terrifying as a parent, and my baby, she's not even old enough to eat food yet so really she's primarily formula," Gallagher said. "You just don't know what you're gonna do. It's my job to take care of her, and she depends on me for that."

hmackay@detroitnews.com