Madison Rux didn’t have much hope that Congressman Steven Palazzo could help her, so she wasn’t terribly surprised when he didn’t.
For weeks, the Petal mother had been scouring Facebook groups and driving from store to store, trying to find formula for her now 7-month-old son.
When she saw a friend explain on Facebook that contacting Palazzo’s office had resulted in a free expedited shipment of formula, she decided to give it a try. But her expectations were low.
“In the back of my mind I was like, ‘What is he gonna do?’” Rux said. “With all these mothers that are struggling to find formula, what is he gonna do about it?”
On May 10, Palazzo posted on Facebook that people having trouble finding baby formula should contact his office “so we can assist you as best we can.” It did not include contact information.
“Ensuring each new life is well fed and taken care of is crucial during this national shortage,” he wrote. The post was shared about 3,000 times.
Another Palazzo post on May 18 touted “the successes we’ve had so far” in helping people who had reached out to his office for help finding formula, including two testimonies from people thanking his office for their help and adding a phone number to call.
But for Rux and other parents, calling the congressman’s office was another fruitless detour on what has become a constant quest to find the formula she needs to keep her baby alive. It also highlighted the limited efficacy of Palazzo’s pledge to help constituents, even as he missed two votes on the issue last week and continues to criticize the administration of President Joe Biden over the formula shortage.
Rather than providing formula, caseworkers have been sending callers links to online store locators — which many desperate parents are already using — and sharing contact information for formula manufacturers.
On Monday, Palazzo’s office told Mississippi Today that they had put 103 people in touch with formula makers, and confirmed that four of them had actually received formula. It’s possible that others also got formula but didn’t tell the office.
Rux called the office on Friday and said she needed an Enfamil formula manufactured by Reckitt — as a recipient of federal WIC (the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) benefits in Mississippi, she can only buy Enfamil products unless her baby’s pediatrician says he needs something different. Palazzo’s caseworker took down her information and she got an email on May 20.
“It was a paragraph from Reckitt that they were just forwarding,” Rux said. “They had their header on it to make it look professional, I guess. ‘Here’s a link to check the stores. Have a good day.’ I was like, oh, thanks. Thanks, that’s helpful.”
It appears that most people who use WIC to purchase their baby’s formula were out of luck if they contacted the congressman. Palazzo’s office said the four confirmed recipients had requested a brand made by Abbott Laboratories, which produces Similac. Anyone who requested a Reckitt brand, like Rux, got a link to a store locator.
As of 2021, about 72,000 Mississippians were enrolled in WIC. A household of three must make about $41,000 or less annually to qualify.
“Thank you for the information, unfortunately everyone within a 50 mile radius (is out) of formula right now,” Rux replied to the email she got from Palazzo. “I’ve been calling all the stores and everyone is currently out of the Gentlease formula, even on the Enfamil website and we’re down to two cans which will last almost a week. Because we’re on WIC we can’t afford to order the $50 container online. Is there anything else that we could do? Thank you so much for your help!”
She got a call back from a staffer who suggested she continue calling stores and asking around — which is also what she has heard from the WIC office when she asks for help. Her son has a pediatrician appointment on Friday and Rux hopes he’ll have advice or even formula to share.
At least a handful of Mississippians found that Palazzo’s office did help them get formula.
Lacee Ard, the friend whose Facebook post inspired Rux to try calling Palazzo, contacted them on May 18, seeking help getting the Abbott-manufactured formula brand her three-month-old son needs. She got an email back that same day, saying they had forwarded her information to Abbott and that the company would call her directly. The next day, she got a call from someone at Abbott. The company sent her a free case of formula that she estimates will last her for weeks. It arrived at her Jones County home on Monday.
Ard posted on Facebook Live to talk about the experience, in the hopes that other Mississippi parents might be able to get help. The formula shortage ought to be considered a national emergency, she said.
“All these babies, they’ve gotta eat,” she said. “It’s a terrifying time for mothers in general. To see someone in that position made that post and made himself available to talk or send an email and express his concerns — I was just so thankful to see that (Palazzo) had done that because I haven’t seen anyone else do that.”
Palazzo and other Republicans have blamed President Joe Biden for the shortage. The congressman missed two votes last week on legislation aiming to address the issue. He was attending his daughter’s high school graduation, his office told Mississippi Today.
According to the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica, Palazzo has missed 4.3% of votes during this congressional term, making him the 41st-most-absent member of Congress. Rep. Michael Guest has missed about 10% of votes and is the ninth-most-absent. Rep. Bennie Thompson and Rep. Trent Kelly rarely miss votes, according to ProPublica.
Palazzo also joined other congressional Republicans in filing a 2020 lawsuit against Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to stop proxy voting — the process by which members have other congressmen cast votes for them when they are absent. Since then, he has voted by proxy at least 66 times. Guest and Kelly have never voted by proxy in the same time frame.
One bill, to provide $28 million in funding to the Food and Drug Administration, passed in a mainly party-line vote with little Republican support. Press secretary Megan Quinn said Palazzo would have opposed that bill, like the other members of the Mississippi Republican delegation, “because it is not a permanent nor fiscally sound solution.”
The only member of the Mississippi congressional delegation to vote for the legislation was Thompson, a Democrat. In a statement, Thompson said he believed both bills would help get formula onto shelves.
The other bill, H.R. 7791, which would make it easier for the federal WIC program to buy formula from overseas, passed overwhelmingly with support from all voting members of Mississippi’s congressional delegation. Palazzo’s office said he would have also supported that bill.
Just four companies control about 90% of the infant formula market in the United States, thanks in part to regulations that limit imports.
In mid-February, the Abbott factory in Michigan — the largest formula factory in the country — shut down production after its formula was linked to two infant deaths and the FDA found serious food safety violations at the plant. Months later, the plant is still closed, but Abbott plans to reopen it on June 4. Abbott has said it could take two months to get formula into stores after resuming production.
With the formula market controlled by just a handful of companies operating a small number of plants, the Abbott outage and other supply chain issues have created a major shortage. According to one estimate, more than 40% of all baby formula was out of stock as of mid-May.
Across the state and country, parents and especially mothers have been trading tips and offering spare cans of formula in Facebook groups. Taylor Shahin, a mom of two in Ocean Springs, is breastfeeding her 9-month-old but remembers struggling to find formula for her toddler during the pandemic. She’s been trying to help other Coast moms find cans.
When she saw Palazzo’s post, she hoped it could make a difference. But she heard from other moms that they just received a 1-800 number to call a formula manufacturer. On Friday, she called Palazzo’s office to ask why he didn’t vote on the legislation. She said she was told he had a “family emergency.”
“I said, ‘Well, he chose to run for office and now Mississippi is also his family and I think that potentially hungry babies should take precedence,’” she said in an interview with Mississippi Today. “You make a Facebook post basically bribing desperate moms to think that you’re helping them get formula, when you’re just having your office give them 1-800 numbers and you can’t even show up to vote on a bill.”
Rux said she was glad that some people had benefited from Palazzo’s Facebook post. But for her, it had offered only a flash of false hope.
On Sunday night, she opened her last can of formula. On Tuesday morning, she drove 90 minutes round-trip to meet up with a woman in Laurel who had wound up with an extra can to share. That supply would last about a week. Meanwhile, Rux planned to keep calling every store in an 80-mile radius.
“I’m really hoping that in that week, week and a half, some store will get something somewhere,” Rux said.
Correction: This article previously misstated the number of times Reps. Guest and Kelly have voted by proxy. Neither has voted by proxy during the current congressional term.