Bethesda resident Lindsay Gill (right) founded the Napkin Network in January 2021. Credit: Photo by Christine Zhu

Zulma Medrano-Lopez says feeding her infant was a struggle at first, with her daughter suffering from scary choking fits and severe acid reflux when she nursed or drank from a bottle. 

So with guidance from her pediatrician, the Silver Spring resident began giving her daughter a thickened, added-rice formula that seemed to work when blended with her breast milk. Medrano-Lopez thought she’d found the answer for her baby. 

But in April, the formula suddenly disappeared from the grocery stores, apparently discontinued by the manufacturer. And with a formula shortage that has emptied shelves across the nation, Medrano-Lopez said she’s not sure how to find a replacement and what she’ll feed her baby when her existing stash runs out. 

Her daughter is just 5 months old and nowhere near ready to switch entirely to solid food and whole milk, she said.

“So, the light at the end of my tunnel is still like six-plus months away, where I don’t have to rely on formula anymore,” the mother of three said. “It’s just a lot of anxiety, and in a postpartum parent, that’s already pretty easy to come by.”

Like many other Montgomery County families, Medrano-Lopez said she’s drawn comfort from other moms, friends and community members who have banded together to help each other through the ongoing formula shortage. Families in the U.S. have been struggling to find formula for months, since a major producer, Abbott Nutrition, closed down one of its facilities and issued a recall. The factory resumed production this week.

One local group, called the Napkin Network, has been hosting donation drives where people can drop off baby formula they no longer need. And two Montgomery County teenagers have designed an online tracker to help people figure out which stores have formula in stock. 

Medrano-Lopez’s friend tipped her off that a Target in Prince George’s County had a few containers of her daughter’s formula, and her retired parents have offered to drive from store to store to see what they could find. Even her non-mom friends have pitched in, combing the internet to hunt down her daughter’s formula brand.

“It was really heartwarming to see how your village really does try to come through,” she said.

‘Too much’

Every morning and night, North Bethesda mom Lauren Steyn is on her phone, searching for places that might have formula in stock. She’s spent hours per day looking, she says. 

“It’s incredibly stressful,” said Steyn, whose daughter is 8 months old.

And Steyn counts herself as one of the lucky ones. Right before the shortage hit with full force, she stocked up on the formula that her baby uses. That was the last of the formula she could find for weeks, she said.

Eventually, though, her stockpile ran low. 

Since then, Steyn has been depending on a patchwork of formula sources: Relatives in Texas discovered some bottles and mailed them to her, and a friend of a friend sent her formula from California. 

Steyn estimates she has enough formula for about a week and a half before she runs out again, and because of the uncertainty, she’s sped up her daughter’s switch to solid foods.

“We’re just trying to get off the formula as much as possible,” she said. 

Amy Rivas Marston, a Rockville resident, also decided to stop relying on formula and has switched back to exclusively nursing her 5-month-old daughter. 

She says she’d been struggling to produce enough milk and largely formula-fed her daughter for the first couple of months. But when formula disappeared from the stores, she had to make the difficult switch back to nursing.

A middle school teacher, Rivas Marston often races home during her lunch breaks to feed her baby and has to pump at work, early in the morning and in the middle of the night to maintain her milk production. 

And when one of her friends couldn’t produce enough milk for her own infant, Rivas Marston pumped for her and for her own baby. 

“It gives you too much anxiety. I already have enough just raising my three kids during this pandemic,” she said. “So putting that on top of the formula searching and everything, it’s just too much.”

Community help

A couple of years ago, the Napkin Network began as a way for moms to support one another, founder Lindsay Gill says. 

Families attend Napkin Network’s formula drive Friday at Fleming Local Park in Bethesda. Photo by Christine Zhu.

The Bethesda resident says the group has hosted diaper drives, collected cleansing wipes and distributed baby clothes through regional nonprofits. But earlier this year, the Napkin Network changed gears to focus on the formula shortage — something that was hitting Gill, too, as the mother of a 5-month-old baby.

The group has been hosting formula drives where people can “bring what you have, take what you need,” she said. Between these events, the Napkin Network also gives away formula, sometimes just a few sample cans at a time. Anything helps, Gill says.

“I’ve received the feedback, ‘Thank you so much. I was down to literally my last bottle,’ ” Gill said. 

Montgomery County teens Adam Lederer and Matthew Nanas have also volunteered to help families by designing an online formula finder,

The site pulls inventory data from Target, Buy Buy Baby and Bed Bath & Beyond locations and also crowdsources information about which retailers are carrying baby formula. Since the site launched last week, shoppers at stores around the Washington, D.C., area — mostly along the Interstate 270 corridor — have been uploading photos of store shelves that have a handful of formula cans in stock. 

The teens say they designed the site at the request of state Del. Lesley Lopez, a District 39 Democrat who lives in Germantown. 

Lederer had already done something similar during the pandemic, working with a collaborator on a website that helped people find COVID-19 vaccine appointments. 

When Lopez got in touch about a formula tracker, Lederer, a recent graduate of Clarksburg High School, teamed up with his friend, Nanas, to make it happen. 

Nanas, who recently graduated from Wheaton High School, says the website reached thousands of users in its first week, with people as far away as Florida checking it out.

“It’s helping a lot of people,” Lederer said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Bethany Rodgers is a freelance writer who formerly covered schools and development for Bethesda Beat.