For many low-income families, getting formula has always been a strain

Miracle Abbott became pregnant in her junior year at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

She had a low-paying job and her student debt increased, so she turned to a special supplementary nutrition program for 19-year-old women, infants and children, known as WIC, to get baby formula and food. But after her birth, her baby had colic and painful reflux and her pediatrician recommended that it not be available through a special formula program.

It took four months, three pediatrician appointments and two meetings at her local WIC office before the program provided her with a formula that worked for her daughter. He has spent hundreds of dollars of his own for formulas in the process. It was in 2020, a few years before an Abbott manufacturing plant in Michigan closed due to concerns over bacterial contamination. February Shutdown and Coincidental Withdrawal Catalyzes Massive Child Source Deficit in US

The ongoing lack of resources has put tremendous pressure on families across the country, especially those who rely on the WIC. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the WIC, the federally funded grant program, which is administered by about 90 state, regional, and tribal governments, is responsible for two-thirds of all formula purchases in the United States.

For nearly 50 years, WIC has provided food assistance to low-income mothers and children. About half of the children in the United States – 1.5 million – will benefit from WIC in 2021 That purchasing power has resulted in significant cost savings for the federal and state governments operating the program. But extensive shopping for the program also limits family choices and can make it harder for mothers like Abbott to find the right formula for their babies.

These restrictions began in 1989 when WIC administrators adopted a policy that formula companies bid to be the sole provider for each state. States then offer a limited assortment of formulas from the winning manufacturer.

Under the arrangement, companies offer significant discounts to state WIC programs for their purchase formulas. For every $ 1 WIC formula paid to companies, it gets a rebate of about 93 cents, explained David Bateson, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Notre Dame who studied the WIC program.

According to the USDA, rebate savings reduced annual program costs by $ 1.6 billion last year. In a statement to KHN, it said the rebate system allows states to use their food subsidies more efficiently and offset formula costs so that more participants can be served without increasing federal funding.

And because of WIC’s bidding policy, about half of WIC-supported children receive formula from only one brand: Similac, which was created by Abbott. As a result, more than half a million children probably had to change formulas after the February withdrawal and plant closure.

Many children work well with any formula, but some parents find that their child seems to be doing well in a particular brand and type.

“Parents often have to experiment a bit and often try three or more formulas that keep their baby comfortable,” said Bridget Young, an assistant professor of infant nutrition studies at Rochester Medical Center University.

When Jenny Murray, a mother of three in Florida, began receiving WIC benefits, the formula her baby used was not one of the WIC-approved alternatives in her state. The formula that WIC has chosen for her baby has made her gasp. Officials at his WIC office told him he needed a note from his doctor to get a different formula, but his doctor said it was not medically necessary to change it. So he has stayed with that formula. Now, in short supply, he struggles because WIC only allows participants to buy formula small cans, and he says they are the hardest to find. (Some states are temporarily changing policy due to WIC program deficits.)

“I didn’t even have dinner tonight because I knew we were going to spend the rest of the evening just going from store to store in the hope that we would find something. [formula]”At times, he had to pay out of pocket for about $ 40 for a large can of formula,” said Murray.

The decision by competitors to serve WIC programs for formula makers for each state has led to higher prices, Betson said. He found that wholesale sources across the board had almost doubled the price since WIC implemented its bidding process from 1989 to 2002. Another study found that formula prices increased by an additional 30% from 2006 to 2015. Betson says formula companies influence formulas to sell through WIC and fill it by charging higher prices to non-WIC customers.

Other economists, however, say that formula companies benefited rather than increase sales after winning the WIC deal, and that prices were not affected for non-WIC customers. (Store-brand formulas, created by Perigo Nutrition, are a company that does not participate in WIC agreements, which are about 40% less expensive than formula brands that participate in WIC and have almost identical ingredients.)

And WIC spends more on formulas than any other food, because most WIC-supported children, about 88%, get at least some formula through the program. Low-income families are more likely to use the formula because these mothers often face more barriers to breastfeeding. For example, about 25% of low-income people have to return to work about two weeks after giving birth, says Efeinwa Asiodu, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Francisco, whose research focuses on infant discrimination. Those same parents can work in jobs that do not have breastfeeding, and they may be afraid to risk their jobs for what they want, he said.

Due to the high infant rate, according to the Federal Program, WIC administrators have tried to encourage breastfeeding mothers to breastfeed with more food, and some states have tried to limit access to formula for mothers who have started breastfeeding. Emelyn Pratt, a mother of two living in Vermont, said she needed to see a lactation consultant at her WIC office to get the formula, although she explained that she had already stopped breastfeeding. The uncomfortable appointment made Pratt cry.

Asiodu, who said he wants more policies that support breastfeeding and enable greater access to human milk from the Milk Bank, also sees the need for more flexibility in the WIC.

“I think it’s really important that we allow families to make decisions that really suit their needs, and provide resources along the way,” he said.

Miracle Abbott says he also wants the WIC to have more options for formula feeding. Despite having a colic child, going to school and dealing with epidemic problems, he said, “WIC is probably the most frustrating thing we had to deal with.”

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