Formula Feeding & The WIC Program

Formula Feeding & The WIC Program

I have a love-hate relationship with the WIC (stands for Women, Infants and Children’s) nutrition program in the United States.

On one hand, we are so incredibly lucky to have it. For those readers outside the U.S., the WIC program is a federal assistance program of the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. How WIC benefits operate state-by-state will vary a bit, but the objective is the same: they “provide healthcare and nutrition to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children under the age of five.”

Of the social services offered in the U.S., WIC is well-known as being easier to access than most and also has a relatively high income threshold, meaning it assists a lot of people.

What makes WIC special is that they supply infant formula to low income families.

This is huge. HUGE.

Far more socially progressive countries do not offer this. While their formula is just as expensive to purchase as ours (and they are not allowed to use coupons or receive other bundle discounts, and there is no generic formula available), the government will not subsidize its purchase for low-income families.

It is laudable that the United States recognizes that infant formula is a healthy, nutritious alternative to breast milk and ensures that families will have safe and reliable access to it –ultimately protecting infant health and well-being.

However, this is where my praises stop.

Unfortunately, this “gift” does not come without strings attached.

WIC is notoriously rampant with some of the worst institutional lactivism a woman can experience.

The stories are endless: women shamed by WIC counselors for their decision to formula feed; forced exposure to posters, pamphlets, and other forms of ‘breast is best’ propaganda that go beyond exaggerating benefits and hop right to flat-out lies; if women claim to be breastfeeding (to receive extra maternal food supplementation) they can be asked to prove milk output by doing weighted feeds in front of staff; and formula feeding moms receive fewer complementary baby foods and a shorter duration of benefits than breastfeeding moms.

There are no formula feeding specialists at WIC, just a plethora of lactation consultants and lactation “peer counselors,” despite the fact that the majority of mothers on WIC do not breastfeed (for a myriad of very legitimate reasons).

I once witnessed with my own eyes a friend shamed by a WIC counselor for applying right away for the “full formula” package, instead of “attempting to breastfeed first.” It wasn’t until my friend told the counselor that she had recently had a double mastectomy that she relented with her propagandizing – quite embarrassed, I might add.

In fact, many women will testify that while WIC benefits have the potential to help their families enormously, it’s simply not worth the hassle to get them. And so, they forego applying altogether.

But here we sit: WIC, while painfully imperfect, is a necessary resource for many families.

So, How Does It Work?

Well, the federal government (for WIC) enters into contracts with select companies and purchases a crap-ton of infant formula. In fact, about 55% of all infant formula sold in the United States goes to the WIC program.

But here’s the kicker: they will only accept contracts with name brand formula manufacturers – namely Enfamil, Similac, and Nestle (who assumed Gerber).

You’re probably familiar with a government bidding process. An Invitation for Bid is posted and companies submit their bid proposals. A contract is then awarded to the low bidder who is considered responsive to the government’s needs.

Well, in this case, generic formula suppliers are ineligible to compete in the bid process.

But why? If they can provide the product for far less, then why not let them compete? A lot of us (myself included) use generic formula because it’s far more cost effective and produces the same outcomes.

Answer: I have no idea.

And here’s the REAL kicker: companies like Enfamil and Similac offer deals to the government that the average consumer doesn’t get. That is, they contract in bulk for far less than shelf price. The government only pays a fraction of what you do at Target for a can of formula.

But businesses don’t exist to give things away for less, so what gives?

You do. They make up the loss in the price to which they sell to you. American consumers are subsidizing these big government contracts in the prices we pay.

Back to WIC

If you receive formula through the WIC program, you will be allotted a certain number of cans per month. Generally, the number of cans is highest when your baby is younger and consuming an all-milk diet and decreases as solid foods become introduced and baby approaches his first birthday.

What they will offer beyond this varies by state and you will need to inquire within, however, some rules are relatively consistent:

  1. There are limited, but easily accessible options for at least one dairy-based, one soy-based, and one partially hydrolyzed formula to choose from.
  2. Powder formula is the first (and pretty much only) provided.
  3. The need for ready-to-feed or concentrated formula will require physician documentation.
  4. The need for an extensively hydrolyzed (Nutramigen) or hypoallergenic/elemental formula (Neocate) will require physician documentation.
  5. If you are planning to breastfeed and only supplement with formula, you will receive considerably fewer cans per month.

Where Problems Can Arise

One of the biggest problems we see with WIC’s provision of formula is that it’s often not enough. Some babies consume more than others and WIC does not account for that.

You may say to yourself: “Well, if a mom’s already getting 80% of her formula for free, then what’s the big deal if she has to go out and purchase the other 20%? It’s not that much…

Well, I’d encourage you to revisit the, “WIC will only accept contracts from name brand companies” thing.

For families who are struggling to afford formula, using generic can literally cut their bill in half. It’s great!

However, if your baby is required to use name brand formula 80% of the time via WIC, you cannot just go out and buy some generic to tide you over until next month. An abrupt formula switch like that can upset a baby’s digestion and even make him sick.

Therefore, you are forced to go out and buy a can (or more) of name brand, which can be a lot of money to a family financially struggling.

What Can You Do?

Well, the last thing in the world we want is for families to ration formula to help make it last longer. This is often done by adding more water than what is needed, which can be dangerous to baby’s health. It’s important to follow the mixing instructions 100% correctly.

Along this same line of risk is re-using formula or re-feeding from a bottle that baby started and didn’t finish. It is not safe to refrigerate or otherwise set aside a partially-eaten bottle of formula and use it to feed again later.

Mixed formula is good for a MAXIMUM of two hours. Realistically, more like an hour, especially if it’s hot or humid out. The moment baby’s lips touch the bottle’s nipple, bacteria are introduced and begins to multiply. After two hours (even if refrigerated), these bacteria can multiply too much and become dangerous.

1. Be Mindful When Mixing Your Formula

It’s important to make as much as you need and not more. What I like to do is make up a pitcher of formula for the entire day (or 24 hours’ worth). Mixed formula is safe in the fridge for 24 hours. If you know roughly what your baby eats at each feeding, and roughly how many feeding he eats per 24 hours, this amount is fairly easy to guess.

Be sure that your mixing pitcher has markings for fluid ounces on the side of it so that you can be sure you’re mixing correctly. I love the fanned Dr. Brown pitchers. They’re great for breaking up clumps of powder.

If baby eats 3 ounces every four hours but goes a little longer at night, it might go a little something like this:

8:00 am – 3 ounces

12:00 noon – 3 ounces

4:00 pm – 3 ounces

8:00 pm – 3 ounces

2:00 am – 3 ounces

7:00 am – 3 ounces

STOP: 24 hours is up

So, above this is a total of 18 ounces in 24 hours. You can make your pitcher up before going to bed and re-make a new pitcher the next night before going to bed. Then you pour bottles from the pitcher overnight and all throughout the next day. If you find yourself falling short as the day is winding down, you can always prepare more. It’s better to come up short then have some leftover that you need to dump.

As you make up your bottles, don’t overdo it. Fill them as high as baby has been predictably eating (recognize when to increase feedings). If baby finishes that bottle and wants more, then you can go back to your pitcher and pour an ounce or so more, wasting as little as possible.

Gauge your mixing. If the day before you came up short, fill your pitcher a little higher. Likewise, if you had to dump some formula from your pitcher because time had expired, cut back a little.

2. Local Formula Banks

If you still find yourself coming up short by the end of the month, many cities have formula banks. You can check yours. These are like food pantries but they primarily stock infant formula, baby foods, diapers, and wipes. They’re familiar with the WIC formula shortages families often experience and can help.

In addition to formula banks are church outreach ministries and other non-for-profits.

3. Search Sale Sites

Facebook Marketplace, formula exchange groups, and Craigslist-type sites will have people selling unopened and unexpired name brand formula all the time. (Unfortunately, some of this is WIC formula that gets re-sold for profit.) If you find yourself in need, check it out. Most will sell for $10 or less a can – a fraction of the price charged in stores.

4. Consider Whether or Not Generic is Cheap Enough

Consider your financial situation and if foregoing WIC and feeding 100% generic formula is a more desirable decision for you. Be realistic and consider your future job security and reliable monthly earnings.

Unfortunately, I speak with women all-too-often who have been very disappointed or even traumatized by their WIC experiences, and they’re desperate for an alternative.

Read about the cost analysis of generic vs name brand – here.

Don’t forget to contact us today!

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