WarmRegards August 2022: How Can WIC Help Mitigate the Formula Shortage Crisis?

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WarmRegards August 2022

Welcome to WARMRegards! We’ve recently restarted our popular e-newsletter aimed at helping WIC agencies discover the latest developments in technology, applications, and tips-of-the-trade. It’s our goal to support you in reaching and retaining more WIC clients.

For most of this year, the United States has been experiencing a severe infant formula shortage affecting families all across the country. The crisis began with global supply chain issues in 2021-2022 and was compounded after a large-scale recall of baby formula was issued in early 2022. While typical out-of-stock rates for baby formula hover around 10%, at the height of the shortage, out-of-stock rates hit a shocking 70%, leaving worried parents struggling to feed their babies. Parents have had to travel great distances and pay exorbitant amounts of money to find formula. Hardest hit during the shortage are low-income families and those living in rural regions, along with parents of babies with special dietary needs. 

In desperation, parents have sometimes resorted to extreme measures, like making their own baby formula or diluting formula to make it last longer. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions against these actions, as they put babies at risk of malnourishment. To combat these issues, the USDA has extended the capabilities of WIC state agencies in order to provide formula to babies. As a WIC agency, how can you take advantage of this extension to help families during the formula shortage?

Keep Clients Informed

Your clients are most likely familiar with the brands of formula they are able to obtain through WIC so when they see those brands are out of stock, they may feel like they have no other options. However, the USDA recently waived certain regulatory requirements, allowing WIC agencies to authorize more types of formula than before, including some imported from other countries. We suggest the following steps for informing clients of these new changes:

  • Provide information through your website. You can share a searchable list of the WIC-authorized formulas and even include a quick explainer video so clients know what is available to them. Here, you can also include information about safe alternatives if parents struggle to find the formula they need.
  • Share educational information in the languages of the community you serve. Often, the staff at WIC clinics do not share the same cultural background as the clients that visit their clinic. Hiring bilingual staff or using a WIC-specific translation service can help bridge this gap, as can offering information in clients’ native languages.
  • Some clients may not think to check your website. Sending automated texts to let clients know about the formula updates is a great way to reach more moms. Include a bitly link that allows moms to access your website information along with a two-way chat option for further questions. Be sure to send texts in the client’s native language to ensure they get the information they need. 
  • When dealing with the stresses of a formula shortage, moms are unlikely to be able to travel to your clinic for help – especially moms in low-income or rural areas. Allowing them to chat with staff means they can ask questions without having to spend the time and money visiting a clinic in person.

Breastfeeding Support for Moms

We know that the solution to the formula shortage isn’t simply that mothers should breastfeed instead. Many moms are unable to breastfeed for a number of reasons, so access to formula is necessary for the health of their babies. However, support and outreach for mothers who are breastfeeding or combination feeding can help lower the demand for formula.

WIC agencies are in a unique position to provide that additional support for breastfeeding mothers. One of the most effective forms of outreach is text message intervention. In a study by BioMed Central, a group of mothers received one text message containing information about breastfeeding every week for eight weeks, meanwhile a control group received no text intervention. The study showed that the mothers who received the informational texts were more likely to exclusively breastfeed longer than the mothers in the control group. Breastfeeding can be a struggle for new moms, but this study indicates that a once-weekly reminder of the benefits of breastfeeding encourages moms to continue trying. 

Your WIC clinic can use text intervention to provide additional breastfeeding support to moms as they navigate the challenges of feeding their babies. We recommend setting up texts to send automatically once a week, from gestation through infancy, and customizing each text to sync with where the mother is in her breastfeeding journey. The weekly text messages can include information about:

  • Methods for increasing milk production.
  • Quick and healthy food choices for busy moms.
  • Foods for moms to eat to increase the baby’s likelihood of accepting solid foods.
  • The importance of staying hydrated while breastfeeding.
  • Foods to avoid while breastfeeding.
  • Caffeine and alcohol limits for breastfeeding moms.

Much like with providing information about formula, you may find that breastfeeding moms have questions for your staff. You can use an encrypted chat app for this purpose as well. This enables breastfeeding moms to ask medical questions and share private health information in a secure environment that’s convenient for them.

As questions continue to swirl about the oversight of the FDA in properly regulating the production of baby formula, it is natural for moms to have concerns about how to safely feed their babies. Through outreach methods like texts, informational sites, and chat apps, WIC clinics can help moms who may not know where to turn. You can use these methods to provide your clients and potential clients with information about breastfeeding or obtaining formula.

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