Empty bottles: Area mothers, agencies struggle to feed babies amid formula shortage

6 min read

As the nationwide baby formula shortage continues, area mothers are struggling to feed their children while local agencies try desperately to meet client demands.

“The stress levels are very high,” said Rhea Weese, site director of Genesis Centers by Genesis of Pittsburgh in Washington. “We’ve been struggling since the recall. I had quite a supply that I had to send back. I had to send all of my hypoallergenic Similac products back. That’s when my struggles really started.”

Weese, whose site serviced 680 clients in 2021 alone, said she receives phone calls daily from parents in search of formula – especially specialty formula – which flies off shelves or disappears from online stocks faster than parents can click “add to cart.”

“Never in my time – I’ve been here since 2013, plus I have children – and I have never personally experienced this,” Weese said.

The baby formula shortage made headlines recently after Abbott recalled its Similac products in February, but the struggle to keep bottles filled stretches back to the beginning of the pandemic, said Megs Yunn, executive director of the North Huntingdon-based nonprofit Beverly’s Birthdays.

“The pandemic sparked this. I kind of feel like I’m reliving it again,” said Yunn. “The world shut down. Challenges were put into play – certain entities shut their doors for a while. People who were applying to WIC (Women, Infants and Children) had to wait. Now, there is this immense amount of need. It’s just been over the last six weeks where the store shelves are just wiped out.

“We’ve been able to support families from the beginning because we’ve been able to buy from the manufacturers,” she said. “We can’t even buy from the manufactures now. This is by far the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Yunn and her staff scour local grocery and online stores and buy as much formula as they can for distribution to Beverly’s Birthdays’ 115 local partners, including organizations in Fayette County and, sometimes, Genesis.

Next week, the nonprofit will launch the Greater Pittsburgh Infant Formula Bank to provide formula directly to mothers at two sites: one in Homewood, and the other in McKeesport. The McKeesport distribution center shares a building with WIC.

The infant formula bank will be stocked in part through a donation from the Allegheny County Medical Society (ACMS), which should receive 1,200 containers by early next week. ACMS will distribute the formula between Beverly’s Birthdays, WIC, The Lemieux Foundation and Every Child Inc.

“This was super important to (executive director Sara Hussey), trying to just bridge the gap until the shortage kind of works itself out,” said Sarah Arbogast, of The Corcoran Collective, on behalf of ACMS. “Hopefully this at least helps out some families for the time being.”

Other area agencies noted the shipment of baby formula coming into the state has not been earmarked for them. A spokesperson for Fayette County Community Action Agency said its WIC program hasn’t received word that any of the incoming formula will be distributed to the nonprofit.

The spokesperson noted WIC is doing its best to provide formula to mothers in need.

Weese has not received baby formula, either. Like Yunn, she stocks up when it hits shelves.

“I check store websites multiple times a day,” she said. “In the beginning of all this, I was able to secure some of the Walmart brands, the off-brands. It has definitely been a struggle, and there were times I did not have hypoallergenic formula to offer to our clients. When you’re on specialized formula, you just can’t switch back and forth. It’s too risky.”

As area agencies work to acquire and distribute baby formula, local mothers are giving one another a hand on social media. Shortly after giving birth to her second son, Brittany Pickerel, of Peters Township, received free baby formula samples in the mail.

She posted her formula supply to Facebook.

“Pretty shortly after he was born, it just got sent to us. I saw on social and stuff there’s the crazy shortage. Things were going well with breastfeeding and I had some milk in the freezer, if there was some kind of emergency. I figured … I don’t need it, and if people do need it then I feel like I should offer that,” said Pickerel, whose youngest is only a month old.

“If I was in that situation, I would be really scared and desperate. I figured the least I can do is offer up stuff I got for free.”

Pickerel said all but one can of the formula she posted to social media has been picked up by local moms in need. While Pickerel has a one-month-old and she has a long breastfeeding journey ahead, another local mother had considered transitioning to bottle feeding before recent headlines hit the news.

“Breastfeeding is hard. It takes a lot from you physically, mentally. I have just continued on just because I feel like I have to,” said Emily Devenny, of Washington, whose son, Wiley, recently turned 9 months old. “You look at the shelves at stores and it’s scary. I don’t mind (breastfeeding), I love bonding with my son like that. I think I would’ve stopped by now if there wasn’t a formula shortage.”

Devenny said she feels fortunate her supply hasn’t dipped. She knows women who worry about having enough formula on hand to feed their babies.

“My one friend, she had to go to her doctor every few days just to get samples of the formula she used,” Devenny said.

If she wasn’t able to breastfeed, Devenny, like Pickerel, would feel panicked.

“I would’ve had to reach out to my pediatrician because I wouldn’t know what kind of formula to get,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what kind to look for or how to go about getting it. I don’t know what I would do, honestly, if I couldn’t find formula.”

For those in need of formula, Genesis in Washington has no income guidelines and welcomes calls to 724-225-6701. To learn more about Beverly’s Birthdays’ infant formula bank, visit


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