Community Health

A national baby formula shortage has parents scrambling to find ways to feed their babies. Community agencies are helping to provide formula and some people are sharing supplies through social media groups. 

Another group is pitching in – breastfeeding parents who produce more milk than their children need. 

Rebecca Wells-Gonzalez, a professor living in Louisville, had her son Francis in January. 

When her son had trouble latching, she started pumping her milk, feeding him with a bottle. 

She soon learned she was making much more milk than her son needed. 

“Easily double – more than double,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh gosh, I will freeze this.’ I thought, ‘Oh, I can build a stock and he’ll be eating and if I lose supply, or if I have to quit or something, I’ll have this food for him in the freezer.’”

When their regular freezer started filling up, she asked her husband for a deep freeze for Valentine’s Day – so she could store more milk, for longer. 

Wells-Gonzalez considers herself lucky – she knows lots of parents aren’t able to breastfeed for reasons outside of their control. And even with her high supply, she says it hasn’t been easy – she’s had to spend up to four hours a day at times, and it takes an emotional and physical toll. 

She said she considered stopping or cutting down, but then the shortage hit – caused in part by a Michigan manufacturer issuing a voluntary recall and temporarily ceasing production of formula over contamination concerns. 

Aprile Rickert | wfpl.org

Rebecca Wells-Gonzalez said she produces more than double the breast milk her son needs, so she wants to donate it.

“And when I saw there was a formula shortage, I was like, ‘We make milk. So we’re just gonna keep doing this,’” Wells-Gonzalez said. “And that’s also when I got pretty pressed to donate as well.”

She’s in the Kentucky group on Facebook called Human Milk 4 Human Babies. It helps connect parents who want to donate their milk with parents who may be trying to find it. 

She was able to connect with a mother in Indianapolis who was desperate for milk for her child. Wells-Gonzalez delivered a month’s supply to her, and now she’s looking for someone local to help on a regular basis.

The FDA doesn’t recommend this kind of direct donation – they encourage people like Wells-Gonzalez to give to milk banks, which screen donors and regulate the collection, testing and storage of milk. 

But The Milk Bank charges more than $4 per ounce. Considering newborns may drink more than 20 ounces of breast milk in a day, that adds up fast for parents. 

Wells-Gonzalez said she has considered the milk bank route, but decided to try for direct donation to reduce barriers for those in need.

“So I have this milk and then I take it to a milk bank and that’s really awesome that bank then has milk,” she said. “But someone who’s on WIC and literally can’t access formula through one of these buy-sell groups [or] through another place, they need access to low-cost or no cost-options. And so I can help there.”

Aprile Rickert | wfpl.org

Rebecca Wells-Gonzalez shows several bags of breast milk she has frozen.

Jenna Streit is the advancement director at The Milk Bank in Indianapolis, one of about 30 nonprofit milk banks across North America. 

The Milk Bank provides to both hospitals and directly to families. Streit said to ensure milk is safe enough even for the smallest babies in Newborn Intensive Care Units, or NICUs, they screen donors – asking about their medical history, getting a blood test and asking their physician to sign off on their fitness as a donor. 

“And this really just ensures that we know what kind of medications they’re taking, or supplements, or any of their travel history that might impact their ability to donate,” she said. “Because our milk goes both to babies who are at home, increasingly during the formula shortage, but also to babies who are born prematurely and in the NICU.”

The milk is also tested and processed to make sure it has the proper nutrition levels. 

There’s a cost associated with this testing and parents have to pay $4.50 per ounce. But the bank does offer some financial support to help families who find that out of reach. 

Streit said last year, they gave away around $225,000 in donor milk and shipping costs. They have regional milk depots, where donors can drop off milk, as well as sites where families can pick it up.

The Milk Bank follows FDA guidance on donating to banks, not person-to-person. But Streit acknowledges the shortage has increased the need. 

“We certainly understand why it’s happening right now because families are left without a lot of options, but there are risks to doing that,” she said, of the more informal person-to-person donations.

Before the February plant closure that led to the shortage, the Indianapolis bank got about 30 calls a week from people seeking milk. At one point during the shortage, they got more than 30 calls in one day. 

Wells-Gonzalez said she doesn’t drink or smoke and will disclose any medications to a potential milk recipient. They can also pay for testing if they would like.

According to the CDC, fresh milk should be refrigerated within four hours and frozen within four days; Wells-Gonzalez freezes her milk daily. 

“I can’t make formula appear out of thin air, but I can give of my own milk to help another baby,” she said. “And I think that that is a wonderful feeling.”

There are a lot of other parents like Wells-Gonzalez, eager to help others who need to feed their babies. The Milk Bank previously screened about 175 donors a month. This month, they’re projected to hit 500. 

 

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.