EDITOR’S NOTE: Following the publication of this story, the DPH said it received federal “approval” to donate returned formula, and will no longer throw it out. The state agency is working out the procedures with its local offices on the details of how the formula will be saved and offered to other families, said spokeswoman Nancy Nydam.
Vanesa Sarazua needs to get her hands on baby formula.
When she discovered that leftover, unopened formula returned by some mothers to the state was being thrown out, she said was filled with frustration
“Having seen firsthand the need there is in the community ... it seemed crazy.”
Founder of Hispanic Alliance Georgia, a nonprofit that helps thousands of low-income immigrant families in Gainesville access basic necessities, Sarazua fears the current formula shortage could make desperate parents take “dangerous steps,” such as diluting dwindling supplies of formula with water – something health experts warn against – “or simply feeding rice water” to babies.
While searching for formula donations to pass on to families, Sarazua contacted the state’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC. The single largest purchaser of infant formula in the nation, WIC helps provide it to low-income families. Local WIC clinics also take back unopened cans of formula when they turn out not to be a good fit for the infants they were intended for due to allergies, intolerance to a specific product or brand, or a recommendation by a pediatrician to change prescriptions. Parents who return formula to WIC are allowed to get a different product.
The returned formula, as Sarazua learned, is destroyed, even if the containers are unopened and unexpired. Under state policy, returned formula “not disposed of immediately must be marked for destruction upon receipt.”
For Sarazua, that means even in the midst of a nationwide shortage Georgia is “throwing formula down the sink” when it could be making donations to food banks or nonprofits like hers.
“I mean, talk about waste,” she added. “There’s no formula anywhere and instead of giving [returned cans] to poor kids, they’re throwing it out. When will we be able to change this as a state?”
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Over a roughly seven-month period starting October 2021 – the beginning of WIC’s current fiscal year – WIC clinics in Georgia have destroyed 16,459 returned containers of formula. Powder formula accounted for the majority of the trashed formula (11,724 containers) followed by ready-to-use (3,000) and concentrate (1,735).
Georgia adopted the discarding policy in 2019, in response to nonbinding guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the WIC program at the national level and advised against donations to ensure safety.
In a statement, a USDA spokesperson said this week it doesn’t plan to revise the guidance, noting that the agency also doesn’t “anticipate significant volume of otherwise safe formula going unused at WIC clinics.”
But the statement seemed to leave the door open for donations if states take the initiative. USDA’s statement said its Food and Nutrition Service “remains available to provide technical assistance to WIC state agencies seeking guidance on donating unused infant formula.”
Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Health, said in an email Friday that Georgia WIC leadership has reached out to FNS about “temporarily lifting” the restriction on donating returned formula.
Listing potential safety concerns behind Georgia’s current policy, Nydam noted that returned formula may have been inappropriately stored, may be past its use-by-date, or may have been subjected to tampering.
“Some of these conditions can cause products to lose nutrients, impact the product’s safety, and potentially threaten the health of recipients,” she said.
Question marks around storage were also cited by health departments at the county level.
“We are required to dispose of formula because we cannot determine whether the product was appropriately stored, and we don’t want to risk redistributing formulas with any issues,” said Chad Wasdin, spokesman for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments.
“You don’t want to risk giving it to another parent if it was stored in a garage in the hot summer heat, for example,” said Eric Nickens, from the DeKalb County Board of Health.
But nonprofits serving families on the frontlines of the formula shortage say they already rely on donated cans and deem them safe, and that policies to increase their supply would make a big impact during the ongoing crisis.
The staff of Helping Mamas, a baby supply bank located in Norcross, is fielding a near constant stream of anxious calls from families on the hunt for formula. In 2021, the organization distributed over 5,000 cans, compared to roughly 600 so far this year, because of the shortage.
Being able to shore up their inventory with donations of formula returned to WIC clinics “would be fantastic … it would be great if we could get that back out into the community,” said Jamie Lackey, Helping Mamas’ founder and CEO.
Lynne Saunders, founder of the hunger relief organization Encompass Ministries in Woodstock, agrees. She says the state policy of trashing returned WIC formula “makes no sense, especially now.”
The nonprofit leaders say that those hit hardest by formula shortages are low-income, working-class parents. Some, who may have no car, are unable to travel to multiple grocery stores in search of formula. For working mothers, including the many poultry workers Sarazua works with in Gainesville, opportunities to breastfeed or even to use a breast pump are limited.
Not all states instruct their WIC program to dispose of returned formula.
In Texas, WIC clinics are allowed to donate “unopened containers that are not expired and in an acceptable condition.” In Michigan, a Georgia-like rule forbidding donations was reversed in a matter of weeks, after local health officers dismissed it as “the dumbest policy.”
Before the USDA recommended discarding formula, Nydam says Georgia WIC clinics would store unopened, returned cans and reissue them to other WIC beneficiaries – an indication that returns were deemed safe until recently.
Lackey isn’t aware of an instance of donated formula leading to health issues.
It’s very unlikely for pathogens or disease-causing bacteria to develop in unopened cans of formula and render them unsafe, even if they were exposed to high temperatures, according to Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
“Canned food is one of the safest types of food because the process of canning virtually eliminates any living organism inside of the product,” he said, noting both metal and plastic containers keep products are safe.
Where “extreme conditions” could take a toll, however, is in the nutritional profile of the product.
“Maybe some of the vitamins that are present in the formula could start degrading,” Diez-Gonzalez said. “So, we’re not talking about bacteria risk, in this case. It’s a different risk. Formulas have to provide all the nutrients and vitamins that the baby needs.”
To Diez-Gonzalez, blocking the donation of returned cans may be “a matter of just following as much precaution as possible.” But he says he would still feel safe resorting to unopened, unexpired donated formula to feed his own children.
In response to the ongoing formula shortage, Georgia’s WIC program has begun offering “flexibilities” to families it serves. A doctor’s note is no longer needed if families want or need to change formula brands, for instance. Georgia is also allowing WIC families to purchase alternative container sizes, including those that would otherwise exceed typical maximums.
Aid workers say they would welcome a similar shift in policy when it comes to Georgia’s stance on returned WIC formula.
“You would hope in times of crisis … that policy can be reconsidered,” Lackey said. “One or two cans of formula makes a big difference. It could get that one family over the hump.”
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