The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated numerous public health disparities: food access, health care, and, less frequently discussed, “period poverty.”
The term refers to the inaccessibility of feminine hygiene products, especially for low-income menstruators, and a lack of education surrounding menstrual hygiene. And according to the Alliance for Period Products, a quarter of all U.S. menstruators struggled to afford period products due to lack of income in the last year.
“Not a lot of people think about the need for period products,” said Abby Letocha, a recent Towson High School graduate who has started the local #EndPeriodPoverty campaign in partnership with the nonprofit Student Support Network.
“They’re either embarrassed or they don’t know about the issue,” she said.
To earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, the most prestigious award given to fifth-level Girl Scouts, Letocha set out to create and donate care bags with feminine hygiene products to Dumbarton Middle School in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood of Towson.
When she found herself in the midst of a global pandemic, those efforts shifted and expanded.
“Lots of people donated canned food … but not a lot of people think about the need for period products,” she said.
Letocha first learned about period poverty in her junior year English class during a discussion about the “pink tax,” also known as the practice of “gender-pricing,” which means products marketed to women that cost more than similar products marketed to men.
Most states tax tangible personal property but make exemptions for certain necessities, like groceries, food stamp purchases and prosthetics; in many states that don’t tax health supplies, feminine hygiene products are still taxed as “luxury items,” Letocha said.
That contributes to the fact that women broadly pay more than men for products necessary for personal hygiene; a 2015 New York City Department of Consumer Affairs study found that women in New York City paid roughly 13% more than men for personal care products like razors, lotion, deodorant and shaving cream.
Maryland is one of 14 states that has specifically exempted tampons from being taxed. But with 85,000 Baltimore County residents filing for unemployment insurance since March — and with the expired extra $600 in unemployment benefits — the need for those products has been growing, Letocha said.
U.S. Senate Republican leaders have said they want to scale back the program in a stimulus package that hadn’t been introduced as of the weekend.
“We’ve heard numbers like a 50% increase, a 100% increase” in demand from 65 organizations organizations in the period product alliance that distribute feminine hygiene products, said Joanne Goldblum, chief executive officer of National Diaper Bank Network and Alliance for Period Supplies. “The numbers are unbelievable and untenable.”
As the coronavirus pandemic mounted in mid-March in Baltimore County, tampons and sanitary pads were flying off the shelves, going completely out of stock in some cases, Letocha said.
“They were all pretty much sold out” when Letocha tried to purchase products from Giant to make cycle bags, which include enough products to last through the typical length of a one-week menstrual cycle: five maxi pads, five regular pads, five thin pads and 10 tampons, she said.
“They’re expensive, too,” she said, and not covered by Maryland’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
For the nearly 29,000 tampons either purchased by Letocha or given to her by donors, the cost amounts to more than $3,735, if tampons are assumed at 13 cents per tampon, Letocha said. For the more than 35,000 pads she’s collected, the cost amounts to over $5,305.
The average woman will spend around $6,360 in her reproductive lifetime, from around 12 years old to 52.
Period products are among the first to go at distribution sites operated by the Towson-based Student Support Network, president Laurie Taylor-Mitchell said.
Taylor-Mitchell estimates more than 4,000 cycle bags have been given to families who request them at the Student Support Network’s three distribution sites at Loch Raven Technical Academy, Parkville High School and Owings Mills High School, where the nonprofit also hands out food and other essential non-food items like toiletries; the period products are a new addition to its supplies.
The demand became so high that Letocha brought in a volunteer force of family, friends and neighbors to meet it by purchasing products for donation through Letocha’s Amazon wish list and putting together about 1,000 bags.
Letocha herself has made about 3,000 bags, sometimes as many as 350 in a single week, she said.
“She just roared into action,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “She’s helped so many women and girls.”
The Student Network is also chipping in between $750 and $1,000 a week for period products to go in Letocha’s care bags, Taylor-Mitchell said. And while Letocha prepares to go to college, her mom, Phoebe Evans Letocha, has taken on the work of recruiting volunteers to package 500 cycle packs per week.
But “the demand is going up and up — and actually we are very concerned about what’s going to happen” after the $600 unemployment insurance supplement is due to expire.
That extra money was keeping “a lot of people out of food lines,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “What is going to happen to them in August?”
Grassroots efforts to provide feminine hygiene products to menstruators who might otherwise not be able to afford them is important, but “this is not an issue that is going to be solved through nonprofits and business alone. This requires a governmental response,” Goldblum said.
In the Maryland legislature, a Montgomery County lawmaker has worked for years pushing a bill to install dispensers with free menstrual hygiene products in at least two restrooms of public middle and high schools by October of this year and include additional, specified restrooms by Aug. 1, 2024.
The bill had garnered numerous sponsors in the Maryland House, but only just made its way to the Maryland Senate before the General Assembly ended the session early due to the coronavirus. The bill’s lead sponsor said he plans to bring it back to the floor in 2021.
“All of our schools already buy this product, they just sit in the health office,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, who proposed the bill. But being able to discretely use a product dispensed in a bathroom can save the student both time and the embarrassment that could come with asking school staff for a feminine hygiene product, Reznik said.
Reznik had also proposed to include dispensers in boys’ bathrooms for transgender menstruators who identify as men.
“It’s really important to have transformational change to end period stigma and period poverty,” Goldblum said. “Not being able to meet your own basic needs ... can lead to shame and despair and prevent people from asking to get the product they need.”
The Alliance for Period Products is pushing for the passage of the federal Good Samaritan Menstrual Products Act, which eliminates the civil and criminal liability that currently exists for people, manufacturers and distributors who donate menstrual hygiene products, given the risk of toxic shock syndrome, a rare bacterial infection that can be caused in several ways, including from tampon use.
When Letocha attends the University of Richmond this fall, her classmate and neighbor Ellie Frisch has elected to take up the mantle.
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“She’s done an amazing job with the project,” said Frisch, who has been helping put together cycle bags since April. “Once we heard she was going away to college, I just didn’t want to see it go away.”
What was meant to be a small-scale project “just exploded” because of the coronavirus, Evans Letocha said.
Letocha’s efforts also have inspired similar action in other county Scout troops, with three rising eighth-grade Girl Scout cadettes pushing a period product donation drive for the Student Network, and another Girl Scout who now collects diapers for donation.
Frisch also hopes to partner with Planned Parenthood to educate community members about the issues people who have periods face when it comes to feminine hygiene access.
Taylor-Mitchell said she admires not only Letocha’s “tremendous hard work and focus, I also admire her for working to create a structure that can continue this work after she leaves.”
“It’s really a basic need,” Letocha said. “A lot of us are so privileged that we don’t even have to think about buying period products.”
Those who wish to purchase products for donation to Letocha’s #EndPeriodPoverty campaign can do so through Amazon at www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/2NA6N7UFGTZ27?ref_=wl_share&fbclid=IwAR2nQtOzJT9zKNqN_AGtZQ-AYU0J0wqkHVn8T5NcRAaVnG9oy1TLP-xc5t4.