Baby formula is getting easier to find, but there are still some empty shelves U.S. plants are making more baby formula than ever. But uneven distribution and overbuying means parents can run into empty store shelves.

It's getting easier to find baby formula. But you might still run into bare shelves

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Parents of young kids are dealing with other issues besides seasonal illnesses. For months, it has been hard to find baby formula. There have been many shortages since a Michigan plant shut down. And there have been a lot of fixes, we should say, but things still are not back to normal. NPR's Ximena Bustillo is here with an update. Good morning.


MARTIN: So, Ximena, this has been going on for months, and it has sort of dropped out of the headlines. But just tell us, what is the situation right now? Can people find baby formula?

BUSTILLO: Well, if you look at the overall production numbers, they've increased. There's a lot more formula than there was this summer. Shelf stock data released just yesterday shows, overall, there is about as much formula on shelves right now than there was before the crisis happened.


BUSTILLO: But one problem is when you take a look at the varieties of formula, not all kinds are as plentiful as they used to be. Manufacturers streamlined their operations, and some of them have moved to focus on making smaller cans, not the big ones that many people like to buy. On top of this, there are distribution issues, so stores in rural areas or certain regions might not have as much. Then there's the issue of overbuying. Families are still worried about running out, so when they see their formula on the shelf, they're motivated to stock up just in case.

MARTIN: So still several different issues that are affecting whether or not people can feed their babies. What are you hearing from folks?

BUSTILLO: So more than half of formula is bought through the Women, Infants and Children program, also known as WIC, and it gives people vouchers for the formula. But each state has contracts with specific brands. So this adds yet another level of complication for many people. I talked to Rakaiya Charley, a mother of an 11-month-old in Riverside, Wash., and she told me what she sees when she goes to the store.

RAKAIYA CHARLEY: Mostly empty shelves altogether, and then the options are very limited on what you can pick, especially living in a rural area.

BUSTILLO: She largely counts on WIC but had to pay out of pocket sometimes to get formula when the kind that WIC covers isn't the kind in her store. Also, families that need specialized formula - they're having a really tough time still. Those were largely produced at the Michigan plant that shut down, starting this whole crisis to begin with. And Abbott is the company that owns that plant. They've told me that they've resumed making some of their Similac formulas again, and they told me that those should be hitting retail shelves in the coming weeks.

MARTIN: So it's an election year. We're just weeks away. It's not great to have Americans out there who can't find the baby formula that they want and need. What does the White House have to say about all this?

BUSTILLO: The administration says it knows there are still issues, but they're emphasizing that things are better. And they've also put in place a lot of temporary changes. For example, they've flown in formula from overseas. They've made WIC rules more flexible. And I talked to Brian Dittmeier with the WIC Association. It's a nonprofit that works with health agencies. And he said he's worried because some of those changes are set to expire at the end of the year.

BRIAN DITTMEIER: It would be disastrous in this moment to pull back on the flexibilities because not just the supply, but the distribution of that product - of the contract product is still not at a place where we can assure access every time a family goes to the store.

BUSTILLO: And there are bigger changes that people want to see. Some lawmakers, like Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro, plan on introducing bills in the coming weeks to try and boost domestic competition, so if one plant goes down, it doesn't have such a dire impact.

MARTIN: NPR's Ximena Bustillo, thanks for your reporting.

BUSTILLO: Thank you.


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