Some 1,121 babies were born into the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) shelter system last fiscal year, and a disproportionate number of low-income New Yorkers depend at least in part on formula to feed their infants.

Adi Talwar

The formula display inside a Key Food Supermarket on Jerome Avenue near Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, pictured here in 2017, when supply was ample.

In West Harlem, as in the rest of the United States, baby formula can be hard to come by. That has families in local homeless shelters feeling especially vulnerable.

“Thank god I’m breastfeeding,” said a woman named Ashley, as she approached a family shelter where she stays with her 11-month-old daughter. “It would be so stressful if I weren’t.”

Some 1,121 babies were born into the Department of Homeless Services’ (DHS) shelter system last fiscal year, according to an annual report from the Coalition for the Homeless, and a disproportionate number of low-income New Yorkers depend at least in part on formula to feed their infants. The nationwide formula shortage can be particularly hard on those families because of limited income—packages of powder formula typically exceed $20—and travel challenges, said Kadisha Davis, a formerly homeless advocate and podcast host with the Family Homelessness Coalition.

“It’s sad and terrifying for mothers, especially in shelters,” she said.

So far, however, families with babies staying in shelters are managing to find what they need, according to city officials, staff and residents themselves.

Nonprofit providers say they have at times stepped in to distribute reserves, including baby formula that they receive through donations. Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins, who oversees DHS, said the agency will work with partners to “fill any supply gaps, especially for those with the greatest level of need.”

The Coalition for the Homeless said they have not received complaints through their crisis hotline and have not yet heard of any formula-related issues during routine monitoring visits at shelters for families with children.

Outside the family intake shelter in The Bronx on Monday, Tattiyana Perry said she has been able to buy formula from a nearby supermarket. “I haven’t had a problem,” she said, as she pushed her 8-month-old in a stroller, her 2-year-old nearby. The family entered a store across the street, which had three cans of Enfamil powder behind the counter, each priced at $22—a few dollars more than the cost at CVS, where it is currently out of stock.

Another woman who asked not to be named said she has an infant niece who needs formula and has been picking some up whenever she finds some available. “You just have to buy it in advance,” she said, walking away from the facility with a toddler in tow.

State Health Department data shows breastfeeding rates have risen across New York over the past two decades, but most nursing mothers still supplement with formula.

Citywide, about 44 percent of babies breastfed exclusively for the first six months, according to data from the Citizens’ Committee for Children (CCC).* The rate is lower in many of New York City’s poorest communities—where a disproportionate number of families live before entering shelter. Roughly a quarter of babies were breastfed exclusively in the first six months of life in Brownsville and neighborhoods throughout the West Bronx, CCC found in 2019. In contrast, more than 80 percent of babies breastfed exclusively in Greenwich Village and about three-quarters on the Upper West Side and Park Slope.

Despite the anxieties, the formula shortage has not prompted major concern among groups that represent organizations serving homeless New Yorkers.

The Coalition for Family Homelessness canvassed member organizations and said that none encountered acute crises related to the shortage. Homeless Services United (HSU), which represents providers, also said there were no reports of shortages.

“One person said, ‘Considering everything that’s going on in the world, we’re doing OK,” said HSU Executive Director Catherine Trapani. Some providers told her that large retailers have been out of stock, but families have been able to find cans of formula in smaller shops, like the corner store across from the intake shelter.

But perhaps illustrating the current uncertainty, Davis, a mother of two who has experienced homelessness, said she has heard the opposite from families she knows: smaller stores that low-income New Yorkers shop at, often using their Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, have run out of formula.

After speaking with Ashley and other residents outside the Harlem family shelter, City Limits visited 10 stores on or near the stretch of West 125th Street that borders the Grant Houses and bends northwest toward the Hudson River on June 8. Just three had formula for sale. At two places, the number of cans could be counted on one hand.

The bodega across the street from Ashley’s shelter has not had any formula for the past three months, a clerk said. Another store around the corner was out, too. The C-Town at West 125th Street and Broadway had just managed to secure five cases of Enfamil powder after about a month without formula in-stock.

“I can’t imagine having a baby and not being able to feed her,” said Kristine Nuñez, the store’s vice president of operations, as she stood next to a closet containing the recent shipment. One woman drove down from Connecticut on a quest for formula last month, Nuñez said. The C-Town was out at the time.

Sometimes the sellers are out of stock, she said. On other occasions, the store has placed orders with wholesalers only to have the deliveries fall through. “It’s a guessing game,” Nuñez said. “We order, order, order, but it’s hit or miss.”

A few blocks east, a clerk at a Key Food on 125th Street pulled the store’s entire inventory from beneath her register and placed it on the conveyor belt: Three canisters of Enfamil powder and a container of Gerber soy formula. “That’s it,” she said.

Five other bodegas and small grocers near the Grant Houses were also out of formula. One, on West 125th Street, had four cans of powder tucked behind a string of phone cards. Each was priced at $21.99.

Amid the shortage—the result of supply chain problems and a February recall at one of the few manufacturers in the country—some nonprofit providers have stepped in to help families in need. Ashley, the Harlem United resident, said staff had distributed cans of formula to some moms in the building. The organization did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story.

The organization Safe Horizon, which provides shelter to families fleeing domestic violence, bought a supply of formula from WalMart to share with clients, said spokesperson Laura Vialva. “We were worried about the shortage, but we haven’t had clients in desperate situations and we are hopeful things will improve,” she said.

The family shelter provider Praxis Housing Initiatives told the Riverdale Press that undocumented families cut off from food stamps are most in need of support. They are seeking donations, an official said.

“Since the shortage, we’ve noticed a lot of the moms are having difficulties, and they’re not able to get food stamps,” the head of Praxis shelter in The Bronx said. “We’ve been giving them a lot more formula.”

Food banks have also reported running low, while staff at WIC Offices across the city have worked to help participants identify stores that have formula for sale.

At the Public Health Solutions WIC Office in Corona, staff call stores and then contact clients if formula is available, said nutritionist manager Monica Venegas. Enfamil’s Gentlease, for infants with sensitive stomachs, has been the hardest to track down, Venegas said. They also provide a list of local vendors that accept WIC benefits and encourage mothers to visit several stores, she added (WIC benefits are stored on a debit card that allows parents to purchase healthy food items ranging in value depending on family age and composition. Vendors are later reimbursed).

“The most important thing is that the participant tries many different stores to get as much as they can,” Venegas said. “It’s not easy.”

The unsettling situation is expected to stabilize in the coming weeks. President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act last month to move formula manufacturers to the front of the line for necessary ingredients, and the federal government has begun importing formula from Europe. The same day, Mayor Eric Adams issued a state of emergency empowering the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to crack down on price-gouging (New Yorkers overcharged for formula can file a complaint on the agency’s website).

Still, the unknown is troubling, said Davis of the Family Homelessness Coalition. “I have a foster daughter who is 1, and I’m so happy she’s drinking milk, because this shortage is a lot,” she said.

*Disclosure: CCC is a City Limits funder.