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Baby formula exchanges pair donors with families in need

FDA plans to ease baby formula shortage
FDA eases restrictions as families face baby formula shortage 04:54

Websites are popping up that match people who have extra baby formula on hand with families struggling to find the nutritional products amid a severe national shortage at stores and online. 

Those with baby formula they don't need can sign up to donate the products, while parents and caregivers can register to request what they need. It's the latest scrappy effort from enterprising parents who want to help one another out. 

Keiko Zoll of Swampscott, Massachusetts, launched The Free Formula Exchange, a nationwide mutual aid network, last week after listening to a podcast about the shortage and seeing reports of desperate parents scrounging for formula. Zoll, herself a parent, also recalled the difficulty she had as a young mother finding certain products.

"It reminded me of me when I was that mother nine years ago and I was the mom of a preemie who needed a specialty formula," she told CBS MoneyWatch. "It was really hard to find and really stressful, and that was during a time of plenty." 

"I couldn't fathom being that preemie mom now, trying to find specialty formula when no one can find formula," Zoll added. 

Keiko Zoll, a Swampscott, Massachusetts, mom (seen here with her 9-year-old son Judah), launched The Free Formula Exchange on May 13 to help connect people with extra baby formula on hand with families struggling to find the nutritional products.  Courtesy of Keiko Zoll

How does the exchange work?

People seeking formula can visit The Free Formula Exchange and register to request the products they need. People who have formula can list the products they have in stock on the site. Both requestors' and donors' profiles are visible to each other, and they initiate connections themselves. 

"Each party has access to the other party's database," Zoll said. "It requires initiative from both parties — if you're requesting formula, you reach out to people who have the brand you're looking for; if you are a donator, you look for someone to match what you have."

The site, which has been live since May 13, has received roughly 3,000 requests for formula since its launch. Zoll estimates that the exchange can currently accommodate about 300 of them.

"For every 10 requests, we only have one available person to donate. I want to shrink that ratio as much as possible and would ideally have a one-to-one ratio where every person who puts in a request for formula is able to connect with someone who has supply to donate," she said.

Lawmakers look to take action on baby formula supply 05:55

Another website called Baby Formula Exchange, created by Olympic gymnast and mother, Shawn Johnson East, works similarly. 

"My genius husband took an idea that I had and made it come to life in 72 hours," Johnson said in a video on Instagram after she struggled to find formula for her infant son, Jett.

Someone in Johnson's network spotted the product she was seeking at a store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and shipped it to Johnson East in Nashville, Tennessee — sparking the idea for an online exchange. 

How did we get here?

Baby formula has been in short supply since February, when Abbott Nutrition shut down the largest domestic formula manufacturing plant after consumers reported that four infants who had consumed products made at the facility had contracted serious bacterial infections. Two of the infants subsequently died.

The Abbott plant shutdown exacerbated existing constraints due to pandemic-related supply-chain snarls, and retailers began rationing supplies. A handful of companies dominate the market, while strict Food and Drug Administration standards make it difficult for foreign companies to sell formula in the U.S.

Abbott on Monday said it had reached an agreement with the FDA that it hopes will allow the company to reopen its main plant within two weeks. The FDA is also looking to make it easier for foreign manufactures to ship formula into the U.S. 

Abbott, FDA reach agreement on plan to reopen baby formula plant in effort to address shortage 01:43

Still, experts say it could take months for new inventory to hit store shelves after manufacturing restarts at the Abbott facility restarts. Meanwhile, pediatricians have warned parents not to make their own formula or to dilute their supply in order to make it last longer. 

"The website is a simple solution to complex problem. It's connecting people who need formula to people who have extra to donate," Zoll said. "In absence of additional supply in market, here is at least a stopgap solution for families. I will know this has been successful when I can shut down the website and it doesn't need to exist."

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