At HandsOn River Region 211 in Montgomery, Alabama, we get excited when 211 gets a ‘shout out’ in the national press. Sure, it can be scary if we do not have the framework set up to do what we do best, connect the dots, but it can also turn into a beautiful opportunity.
A recall of infant formula in February 2022 had created a nation-wide shortage of many brands of formula covered by WIC. About half of infant formula nationwide is purchased by participants using WIC benefits.
On Friday May 13th the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS press release) directed parents to ‘Get help finding infant formula’ by just “Calling 211…United Way’s 211 connects you to a community resource specialist who may be able to help you find local food pantries and other charitable sources of local infant formula. Organizations in your community and formula companies may be able to help you find infant formula.”
The press release was designed to be helpful to consumers but 211 did not have sufficient resource information in their database to meet the demand for people seeking infant formula. During the weekend after the HHS announcement, HandsOn River Region 211 Executive Director, Tasha Cooper, spoke with a mother and local advocate who had just started a Facebook group ‘Montgomery Formula Relief’ and a GoFundMe page raising money to assist families who need formula in the wake of the shortage. She recruited volunteers committed to purchasing and delivering this formula to parents of infants in our community.
Local parents began using the donations to shop for equivalent, but not-yet-WIC approved, brands/sizes of infant formula. They connected with a local outreach centers, MetroMGM @ the Beacon Center. This organization had just been approved as a 211 DoorDash pick up location for the Ride United Last Mile Delivery (RULMD) program. The Beacon Center agreed to be the location where formula could be dropped off, so that Dashers could pick it up and deliver it to these families for free.
And this is where it all becomes a beautiful opportunity.
By the end of Monday, May 16th, just three days after the HHS announcement, HandsOn River Region 211 had a plan and an active resource for infant formula access and delivery! Moms could call 211, we shared the link to submit a formula request, requests were prioritized with the most acute needs first, and then formula was sent out using RULMD & Dashers…often on the same day!
During the next month, more than 75 households with infants benefited from our formula delivery partnership. The federal government passed legislation in May, allowing WIC recipients to use their benefits on a wider array of products, and urging states to provide flexibility in the WIC program to mitigate supply chain disruptions or other crises. However, it took a little bit more red-tape removal in Alabama, and it was not until mid-June that the Alabama WIC program would permit brand substitutes or different sizes of formula, that recipients’ benefits previously did not cover.
Once this happened, the shelves became less empty, and families were able to once again purchase what they needed, so the 211 calls for baby formula assistance slowed. Through partnership between community and agencies, initiated by a quick connection between our executive director and local advocates, 211 was able to resolve this unique temporary nutrition crisis in our community.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” – Sun Tzu