Hannah Kroll needed to feed her baby.
After learning about the baby formula shortage back in May and, after procuring the very last package of formula from her pediatrician’s office, the 33-year-old Manhattanite searched every pharmacy and big box store she could find for her 10-month-old daughter, Ellie. Kroll even called her brother in Utah for help, and he connected her with a friend who had some extra formula cans. Out of options, Kroll turned to social media.
After putting out a query on Facebook, Kroll found other parents with enough extra cans of the specific formula her daughter needed—babies often only tolerate one type of formula—and was able to collect enough to feed Ellie for a few more weeks.
“Different parts of the country had different availability of different formulas,” she told me recently. “People who needed certain types of formula, I could find that really readily available in New York versus somewhere else. I said, you know, there’s got to be some kind of a group for this.”
Kroll formed a Facebook group, Baby Formula Search and Swap: Parents Helping Parents. The idea was all in the name—a place for parents to exchange formula. Within just a few days, the group had grown to 600 members. Today it has more than 1,500, and Kroll, alongside her four-year-old son, Max, has personally collected and shipped hundreds of cans of formula. Her Manhattan apartment has been transformed into a formula processing center, with cans arriving and shipping out just as quickly as they are found, more post office than warehouse.
Kroll, who trained as a nurse at Johns Hopkins and has “a knack for disaster preparedness,” routinely keeps an eight-week supply of her daughter’s formula on hand. But when monopolistic forces conspired to limit the supply, even prepared parents like Kroll had to create their own supply chains when neither the companies nor the government could act fast enough. The concentration of the baby formula business came as a shock to parents and the nation when a major formula plant operated by Abbott Nutrition in Sturgis, Michigan, was temporarily shuttered by federal regulators. Only four companies control 90 percent of the formula market in the U.S., and the strained supply chain forced the federal government to fly in formula from overseas just as it forced parents like Kroll to make do in the meantime.
Despite the shortage, Kroll noted, formula producers continued to send sample packs containing cans of various types to new and expecting parents as a recruitment technique. Once a family settles on a formula their baby tolerates, the remaining cans in these sample packs usually go unused. In fact, the extra formula that Kroll procured from her brother’s friend came from an unused sample pack. “It’s unethical to send out formula samples to expecting parents who may or may not end up using them when there are babies who need formula,” Kroll said.
Kroll’s group has taken advantage of their extra samples, shipping the unused cans to each other. However, Kroll believes that sending samples—unsolicited—is “a slap in the face” when companies cannot supply retailers and refuse to send non-sample products directly to consumers. “That’s the biggest issue with the monopoly, is that sometimes it seems like profits are being placed over babies,” Kroll said.
Kroll has collected hundreds of formula cans in her apartment since May, and has shipped them to more than a hundred families around the country. Many have gone to Hawaii, which has been hit especially hard by the shortage, or to military families, who are often limited to the formula supply at commissaries. Kroll’s operation is financed by a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised about $2,500 since May. Kroll said that “every single penny” of that money has been spent on either packing tape or shipping costs.
Slowly, cans of formula have begun to reappear on store shelves, thanks to the reopening of the Abbott plant and to the Biden administration’s Operation Fly Formula, which since late May has been importing formula, Berlin airlift style, from abroad. But according to Kroll, stores typically only have enough formula for the shelves to appear full. They have no stockpile. Most retailers impose a limit of two cans per customer, about a two- to four-week supply.
“I did not think we were going to be here 10 weeks later,” Kroll told me. “We didn’t think this was still going to be happening.”
In addition to running the social media group, shipping formula, and doing her best to drive media coverage of the shortage, Kroll has begun to lobby Capitol Hill, advocating for a national network of formula banks that could be used as a reserve in the event of another shortage. “This isn’t something that is really in the political sphere, and I know a lot is going on on the Hill right now,” Kroll said. “But we’re getting to a point where there are starving babies. I feel like this is one of the biggest public health issues that should be looked at.”
If lawmakers and regulators want to take action, their first step should be to take on concentration in the formula industry, using antitrust laws and Federal Trade Commission power to restore some semblance of competition. It also wouldn’t hurt if there was a plan ready so that, come another shortage, the Department of Health and Human Services or another federal entity could distribute supplies to those in need. That burden shouldn’t have to fall on an already busy mom like Hannah Kroll.