Baby Food Shortage Grips Georgia, Officials Expand Low-Income Vouchers

Jun 15, 2022
Key Points
  • Recent figures from Datasembly show infant formula shortages climbed to 94% at Georgia stores by the end of last month.
  • Roughly half of all new mothers in Georgia meet low-income qualifications to receive federal vouchers for purchasing infant formula.
  • Many Georgians have launched social-media groups for moms to share where they’re seeing formula available and to donate extra formula supplies that they bought but don’t need.

The Gist

A nationwide shortage of baby-food products continues to hit many Georgia families hard even as state officials recently relaxed rules on which infant formulas low-income Georgians can buy with federal vouchers. 

What’s Happening

Supply-chain disruptions, coupled with a massive recall of infant formulas in February from the manufacturer Abbott Nutrition, has left baby-food shelves bare at grocery and Walmart stores across the state for months.

Formula shortages climbed to 94% at Georgia stores by the end of last month, according to Bloomberg’s recent analysis of Datasembly figures. That’s forced Georgia mothers like Janelle Hayslett to hunt for any formula products available – even if it’s not what they usually buy.

“Loads of trouble,” said Hayslett, an Atlanta mother with a 6-month-old son. She was forced to buy a different formula brand than normal during a trip to Walmart on Tuesday. “It’s been the worst situation.”

Mothers across Georgia are struggling to find reliable supplies of infant formula amid a nationwide shortage. (Credit: Canva)

Roughly half of all new mothers in Georgia meet low-income qualifications – around $54,000 annually for a family of four – to receive vouchers for purchasing infant formula under the federal Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC), said Sean Mack, the program’s state director in Georgia.

Georgia’s WIC program has expanded the number of baby-food brands and products that families can buy with their vouchers; previously, only three Enfamil-brand formulas qualified for purchase. About two dozen other products now qualify.

“The shortage has worsened,” Mack said at a state Department of Public Health board meeting Tuesday. “[It’s] impacting all formula suppliers across all brands … and not just WIC participants, as it has stretched out over several months.”

Along with expanding WIC-approved products, Mack said Georgia officials have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to relax rules on medical waivers needed to purchase formulas not covered by WIC, monthly limits on formula purchases and the ability to return unused formula to stores.

Why It Matters

Thousands of Georgia mothers choose infant formula over breastfeeding, largely due to not being able to produce enough breast milk, unsupportive breastfeeding policies at work or a lack of paid parental leave, said Jamie Lackey, the founder of Helping Mamas.

Most weekends, Lackey’s group travels the state distributing free baby food to upwards of 300 families at a time. The current formula shortage has been of top concern for families she’s seen recently in Atlanta, Muscogee County and elsewhere across Georgia.

“Everyone’s just kind of limping along right now,” Lackey said. “You’ve got families that are already under high-stress situations [during the Covid-19 pandemic], and now they’re struggling to feed their child.”

Click the image above to visit the Georgia WIC program's website. (Credit: Georgia Department of Public Health)

With shelves nearly empty, many Georgians, such as Ashley Lauren, have launched social-media groups for moms to share where they’re seeing formula available and to donate extra formula supplies that they bought but don’t need.

“I decided to take this need to Facebook because I was defeated in finding formula in stores,” said Lauren, who created a private Facebook group for mothers in Gwinnett County in April that now has close to 1,000 members. “Lo and behold, moms are coming out of the woodwork.”

Besides sharing tips on where to get formula, Lauren said her group’s members have frequently complained about local stores refusing to let them buy certain formula products with WIC vouchers.

Morgan Hess, a Gwinnett County mother of a 6-month-old son who helps Lauren with the Facebook group, said even the additional brands WIC have approved for purchase under the program are often wiped out at local stores.

“This formula shortage is horrible,” Hess said. “I feel that with the rising cost of gas prices, too, this formula shortage is even harder.”

Vouchers & Gouging

The formula shortage has most hurt low-income Georgia mothers who were already struggling to cover grocery costs and who need WIC vouchers to afford infant formula, said Kylia Crane, the nutrition coordinator with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Georgia chapter.

“This crisis is definitely disproportionate as far as who it’s affecting the most,” Crane said. “But anybody’s baby who’s hungry is a problem.”

More than 188,000 Georgians qualified for WIC vouchers as of February 2022, the most recent USDA data. Nearly 50,000 Georgia infants benefited from WIC vouchers last fiscal year, according to the state Department of Public Health. Georgia is in the top 10 states with WIC recipients, and ranks third-highest in the South behind Florida and North Carolina.

Click the image above to read out story on the impacts to Georgia families from the end of expanded food-stamp benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Credit: Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia)

Amid the shortage, troubling signs of price gouging have cropped up in Georgia as mothers in Facebook groups such as Lauren’s have swapped stories of people stockpiling formula and selling them at high prices.“It makes a horrible situation even worse,” said Crane.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s office has only fielded one complaint of infant-formula price gouging so far, said Shawn Conroy, an outreach coordinator with the office’s consumer protection division

He urged parents to be on the lookout for fake websites, social media posts or other scams trying to exploit the national formula shortage.

"If something pops up, if there is a fake website that's created, if there's a social media post, we want people to report it to us," Conroy said. “We want to know about any bad actors that are putting fake information out there on social media or otherwise."

What You Should Know Now

State health officials have issued reminders for what Georgia families should and shouldn’t do to feed their babies if their usual formula is not in stock:

  • Work with your child's health care provider to determine the best feeding plan.
  • Do not water down your baby's formula to stretch it out.
  • Do not make homemade formula.
  • Do not buy formula from online auctions, unknown individuals or unknown origins. Storage and shipping conditions may impact formula safety.
  • Breastfeeding is encouraged. The state Department of Health states that, “All women who are medically able should be strongly encouraged to breastfeed.”
  • WIC-eligible families have access to an expert with clinical experience for training in helping breastfeeding mothers with complex breastfeeding problems.
  • WIC also can provide breast pumps for new mothers.

How To Help

Several local organizations take and distribute formula donations, or assist families in accessing reliable infant food:

Join The Conversation

What else do you want to know about food shortages and the state government in Georgia? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing [email protected] or [email protected].