“My husband bought two bottles from Walmart, and that’s the last we’ll see in stores,” Hankins, who lives in Prince George’s County, Va., said in an interview with CNN.
Hankins’ son Orrin is now 8 months. She feeds him Similac Alimentum because he is allergic to certain ingredients in milk-based formulas.
The family depends on a program called WIC – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children – to pay for their groceries. Hankins said WIC was especially helpful because it covered Orrin’s formula, which costs between $250 and $300 a month.
But when Orrin’s formula disappeared from store shelves amid the formula shortage, so did the help she got through WIC to pay for it.
Hankins said she can usually find Alimentum on Similac’s website or other retailers’ websites. But since their WIC benefits don’t cover online purchases, when she orders formula that way, it cuts the family’s budget significantly.
“We cannot use WIC benefits online,” Hankins said. “Everything that has been bought this month for him has been out of pocket.”
About half of the infant formula purchased in the United States is purchased through the WIC program.
Families using WIC can only buy formula from retailers that accept their benefits, which sometimes puts out of reach warehouse stores like Sam’s Club or big box stores like Target. More distressing, however, is that WIC recipients cannot use their benefits to buy formula milk online from retailers like Amazon or Walmart.com who would ship it directly to their doorstep.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, no state currently allows WIC recipients to use their benefits online, although some are trying to move in this direction.
For now, families must drive, sometimes for hours, to find formula on the shelves of stores that will accept their benefits.
Hankins is a member of a Facebook group for moms in her area who are looking for formula. They fan out and take pictures to post on the group to save time for other parents. They stay in constant communication.
“We looked for beaches in the mountains and found nothing,” says Hankins.
Move WIC Online
The reasons are legal and technological.
Federal law requires WIC recipients to sign their name or enter a PIN at the time they receive their rides. For e-commerce, the government should waive this requirement for states.
Technological clashes are more delicate. Families on WIC get their benefits through a smart card that looks like a debit card, but it doesn’t quite work the same way. Debit cards deduct the cash value of a purchase from a bank account; WIC cards actually record the number of items a person buys. A card could allow someone to buy three boxes of formula per month, for example. WIC foods must meet certain nutritional requirements, so the cards also limit the type of products that can be purchased.
In order to move these smart cards online, stores must build new systems to do so. This work is in progress, but it will take time. Even when these pilots are launched, WIC shoppers will only be able to buy food online from one store.
“There’s no way to quickly transition to online ordering at this point,” said Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy and early childhood programs at the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, DC. “They can’t do it. It’s too complicated and it’s a security risk, so they can’t pivot to just go online ordering for WIC,” Henchy said in an interview.
“We feel like we’ve been left behind”
This is deeply disappointing for Hankins, Virginia’s mother. The hundreds of dollars they spend on infant formula each month take a heavy toll on their budget. She says her husband used to buy lunch at the Walmart store where he works every day. Now he takes the leftovers. They limit their trips by car because gasoline is very expensive. They spend every dollar.
“I emailed my representatives, my senators, I did everything I could because we feel like we’ve been left behind,” she says.
USDA says it is aware of the need to be able to use WIC benefits online. They say they are working on it.
“Because the WIC transaction is a supplemental support prescription and not a cash benefit, it is a complicated transaction to develop and implement. While WIC state agencies and their partners are working quickly to establish an online ordering solution, this process takes time Food and Nutrition Service is committed to making online shopping a reality as part of the WIC program and provides resources and technical assistance to state WIC agencies to make this happen,” according to a USDA spokesperson.
Meanwhile, stock-out rates for infant formula show little sign of improving from the 10% rate before a national infant formula recall by Abbott Nutrition occurs in February.
Stock rates for powder formulas, in particular, are even worse. More than 27% of powdered products were out of stock in the week ending June 19, compared to 25% the previous week and 23% the previous week, according to data from market research firm IRI.
Supply continues to be patchy as the Abbott plant that once produced a significant amount of Similac medical, specialty and powder formulas for the United States remains closed after recent storm damage, without no update on when it will reopen.
The Biden administration has partnered with international companies to transport tons of formula from overseas, and some of that formula will be making its way to physical stores. But some of that formula is still out of reach for WIC families because it’s sold exclusively online.
On June 9, for example, 62,500 cans of Nan Supremepro1, a formula made by Nestlé in Germany, were flown into the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. All of these shipments will be sold through online retailers including Amazon.com, Nestle.com, Kroger.com and Walmart.com.
“This is a new product to the US market and therefore will only be available online to provide parents and caregivers with information and instructions on how to use it,” the company said in a statement. at CNN.
Non-profit associations are mobilizing to help
Stephanie Spencer hears about the financial pressure WIC families are feeling. Spencer is the founder and director of a non-profit organization called Urban Baby Beginnings.
She recently secured a $180,000 grant from the city of Richmond, Va., to provide micro-grants to WIC families who pay out of pocket for formula.
“What we’re currently doing is offering a $125 gift card to WIC families who have babies under the age of one who reside in the City of Richmond,” Spencer said. “The goal was to expand offerings for WIC families.”
“If, you know, they go to a store like Target or some other place that may not accept it and be able to buy those boxes of formula that they desperately need,” she says. Visa gift cards can be used in stores and also online.
She says the program has been running for about three weeks. She received over 800 requests for gift cards. She says she’s been to every event they’ve given out the cards, and it’s heartbreaking.
“You can see moms are frantic and trying to get their act together, like through these formula swapping groups and things like that,” she says.
“You see families talking about how they have a supply for a few days and then they have to go back and get more,” adds Spencer.
Thanks to recent donations from friends and family, Vicki Hankins says she currently has 10 days of formula for her son. It’s like a luxury.
“I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me,” she says. “I can’t believe it, and I can wait a few days before going out again.”
In the meantime, she has been working with her local WIC office and pediatrician to switch brands, which her son hopefully can tolerate. She says her fingers are crossed for a successful and available change.
CLARIFICATION: Based on updated information, this story clarifies how long Vicki Hankins has been on the hunt for formula.