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Richmond to distribute $180K to help ease spike in baby formula costs

A mother feeds her infant son with a bottle of baby formula.
A mother feeds her infant son with a bottle of baby formula. After partnering with the Robins Foundation, Richmond has been contacted by other organizations seeking to help alleviate issues around the baby formula shortage. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Parents and guardians of infants in Richmond can soon apply for emergency funding from the city to help pay for the cost of baby formula

Earlier this week, Mayor Levar Stoney announced that The Division of Children, Families and Adults is partnering with the nonprofit Urban Baby Beginnings to distribute $180,000 in aid directly to families who cannot afford baby formula. 

“I can’t think of anything more important than making sure our babies have the nourishment they need to grow and thrive,” Stoney said in a release. 

Families who apply for the aid will receive a $125 gift card from the city. There are no restrictions on what those gift cards can be used for, but according to the division’s director, Eva Colen, they’re intended to supplement the rising cost and increasing scarcity of formula due to a nationwide shortage. 

“We're sensitive to the fact that our families might have other needs that they've deprioritized in order to afford formula out of pocket,” Colen said during a May 31 city council meeting. 

The shortage began with the recall of several popular products by Abbott, the nations’ largest supplier of baby formula. That recall, combined with supply-chain issues caused by the pandemic and high tariffs on baby formula that the Trump administration advanced, has made it difficult to find formula across the country, especially for low-income families. 

According to a report by Datasembly, an organization that tracks grocery and retail pricing, 43% of stores had no baby formula during the week of May 8. 

‘Harder and harder to come across formula’

Danni Pannell’s one-year-old daughter Daisy still needs formula. She said the shortage has only worsened during the past month, despite efforts by the government to intervene. 

“It’s becoming harder and harder to come across formula. Last time we found formula, we ended up having to go all the way out to Kilmarnock,” Pannell said. 

That’s about an hour drive each way from Richmond.

The mayor’s announcement Tuesday came less than a month after he announced an initiative to provide funds to families through a similar partnership with the Robins Foundation. Those funds were originally capped at $45,000, but after Stoney’s announcement, several other foundations reached out to the mayor to offer their financial support. 

Those partners include FeedMore, The Community Foundation, the Bob and Anna Lou Schaberg Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation and the Jackson Foundation. 

“This swift and generous response by our philanthropic and community partners is a testament to our shared commitment to working together to lift up Richmonders in a time of need, and I’m deeply grateful for their support,” Stoney said in the release. 

Urban Baby Beginnings, which provides family support services to communities across Virginia, has previously partnered with the city to operate their Capital Diaper Bank, which used federal COVID-19 relief funds to distribute diapers to Richmond parents. 

According to Stephanie Spencer, founding executive director of UBB, the organization's doing everything it can to connect families with these critical resources. 

“Many families in our community are feeling the impact of the formula shortage. It is a scary time for people with children under the age of one,” Spencer said in the release. “Addressing the needs of our babies is paramount at this time. We may not have all the answers, but this is one way we can help.”

The prepaid card being offered is intended to pay for about a month’s worth of baby formula for one child. 

“One-hundred twenty-five dollars typically buys about a one-month supply; it might be a little bit less than [a] one month supply right now, based on inflation and other costs that we're seeing,” Colen said. 

Richmond Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who also has a child reliant upon baby formula, said she’s observed price gouging that could mean these funds won’t stretch as far as they would before the shortage. 

“I know from a number of community members that not only do we see the challenge, which is acquiring baby formula, but the price gouging is very real,” Lynch said. 

On May 16, the Food and Drug Administration announced it reached an agreement with Abbott, which allowed the company to reopen the facility that was responsible for the February recall. Under the agreement, Abbott’s Michigan facility will be required to fix policies identified by an FDA report that could have led to Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria contaminating baby formula. 

Though the plant restarted production last month, it will take six to eight weeks before the product is again available on shelves, according to Abbott

Some parents, though, said the gift cards will not last that long. Additionally, recipients of these funds only qualify for a single card. 

While it would help cover the cost of her daughter’s formula needs today, Pannell said that amount of money would not be enough for a baby in earlier stages of development. 

“Right now, $125 would probably get us through a month, but Daisy’s also one year old and on her way out of using formula,” Pannell said. “If it was in the early- to mid-stages, I could see [feeling] like, ‘This helps, but it’s nowhere near covering [the amount needed].” 

She also pointed out that while a gift card is a good start, they’re not helpful when formula simply isn’t available to purchase. 

“The issue isn’t necessarily that we can’t afford formula. It’s just, we can’t get it,” Pannell said. 

The federal and state governments have also begun providing assistance to in-need families. 

In May, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950, which allows him to require suppliers to direct resources to formula manufacturers before other customers. Biden also announced “Operation Fly Formula,” which is deploying Department of Defense planes to speed up baby formula shipments into the country. 

Additionally, the FDA announced last month that it is relaxing some restrictions on the import of baby formula from foreign countries. 

On the state level, the Virginia Women and Infant Children’s Nutritional Program, which supports low-income families with young children, has temporarily expanded the list of manufacturers from which program participants can purchase products. WIC has also temporarily removed the cap on the number of cans of formula that families can purchase, which according to Colen, was previously limited to 11 per month. 

Families who are part of the WIC program should qualify for Richmond’s gift card program, according to Colen. She said there are 1,000 Richmond families with infants enrolled in WIC, but even if they all access the available funds, there still will be money left over to support several hundred additional families in need of assistance. 

The application aid will be posted June 6 on the Urban Baby Beginnings website.