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Pennsylvania WIC family skips bills to buy infant formula

The national infant formula shortage has been particularly difficult for low-income families with young kids that use a federal nutrition program to purchase food.

Part of the issue is that vouchers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, are only accepted at certain stores. For example, vendors such as Target, RiteAid and Aldi do not accept WIC in Pennsylvania.

For this reason, Emily Martin of Reserve Township has been purchasing formula for her 10-month-old daughter, Skyler, out of pocket, even though she has plenty of WIC credits.

“There are times we’ve had to pay part of a bill, let’s say half of the electric bill, to get formula; or push the car payment until the next month,” said Martin, who noted that Pennsylvania WIC benefits cannot be used for online purchases.

Lisa Matt, Allegheny County’s WIC program manager, says Martin isn’t alone. “Some of those families are struggling with transportation challenges and aren’t able to always travel from store to store. And they’ll call us up, stressed, ‘What do I do? How can I get to these stores? I can’t keep going store to store. How do I get there?’”

While hosting a Friday round table on the topic at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) discussed a bill he introduced earlier this week that requires manufacturers to notify the Food and Drug Administration of supply disruptions to help avoid future crises.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what families have been up against,” said Casey. “It’s critical that [Congress and the president,] both houses of Congress, both parties in Congress respond to this crisis.”

The senator noted that another bill is headed for the president’s desk that would allow WIC families to purchase multiple brands and types of formula; currently, the program greatly limits which products can be purchased.

This is less of an issue in Pennsylvania as the state’s WIC program has temporarily expanded the formula products parents can purchase, but Martin said the change provides little relief, “It’s been a huge nightmare.”

In the meantime, President Biden has ordered that Defense Department aircraft be used to import formula from overseas vendors. And he’s authorized the Defense Production Act, which requires companies to prioritize the production of infant formula.

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