Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Tampons and sanitary napkins are essential, but for many low-income women and girls, they can be as out of reach as a luxury purchase, says Teresa Allen, Executive Director of Charitable Union.
Her eyes were opened to this inequity through studies she read that reported that one in five low-income women and girls struggled to access feminine hygiene products. They would either use newspaper or an article of clothing during their menstrual cycle or would just stay home. She says, “We have girls in our community who are dealing with this every day.”
In lieu of sanitary products, many people are forced to use items like rags, paper towels, toilet paper, or cardboard, says an article published in 2020 on the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health website
. “Others ration sanitary products by using them for extended amounts of time. Period poverty encompasses not only this lack of access to products, but also inadequate access to toilets, hand washing receptacles, and hygienic waste management.”
Teresa Allen, Chief Executive Officer of the Charitable Union, holds a monthly supply of feminine hygiene products.
“Period poverty” refers to the prevalent phenomena of being unable to afford products such as pads, tampons, or liners to manage menstrual bleeding. This is the umbrella term for inequities related to menstruation which is a global challenge
, according an article on the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing website
The U of M article titled “Changing the Cycle: Period Poverty as a Public Health Crisis
says that, “With 1 in 5 girls missing school due to lack of menstrual products period poverty is an important, yet often ignored, public health crisis.” More recent surveys, Allen says, are reporting that 2 in 5 women and girls have either missed school or work because they didn’t have access to products which would have enabled them to leave their homes without having to worry about running out of supplies to get them through the day.
Awareness about the lack of access to these feminine hygiene products and the impact that has on the daily lives of menstruating women and girls prompted Allen to begin a program in 2017. Originally called Period Management, the name was changed to Menses Management because people weren’t comfortable with the word “period”, Allen says. She says she knew there was a need for such a program after 1,000 tampons donated in 2016 to Charitable Union were gone within weeks.
Lucy Blair, Communications Director for Calhoun County, shows how feminine hygiene products dispenser works in a women’s restroom at the Calhoun County building in Marshall.
“We received a phone call from someone who had 1,000 tampons sitting in their garage and wanted to donate them,” Allen says. “We thought they’d last us three years. In six weeks those tampons were gone.”
The process of distributing that initial supply involved Charitable Union
staff asking female clients age 12 and up as they were leaving the store if they wanted or needed feminine hygiene products. Sanitary napkins are bundled in packages of 40. Tampons are available in packs of 30 and clients are able to get a package of each with no limits. That process continues today and Allen says she also has been taking period products and ready-made bags to back-to-school events where she talks to students about being prepared or being able to help a friend in need. Since January, 224,864 pads or tampons have been given to students.
Charitable Union’s work with local students may expand to a countywide model. Funders of the Menses Management program have asked her to study the feasibility of this expansion.
Charitable Union’s program has already been replicated in restrooms on the campus of Kellogg Community College and in some Calhoun County Government buildings where newer feminine hygiene dispensers are being or have been installed giving women access to free feminine hygiene products. KCC and the County are also partnering with Charitable Union to offer information for women who need monthly supplies.
Judge John Hallacy began advocating for the installation of the dispensers inside county buildings after a visit to the Charitable Union with his Rotary Club.
Free feminine hygiene products are available at the Charitable Union.
“My Rotary Club went to Charitable Union several months ago and (Teresa) had us do a project and that project involved packaging up hygiene products for women and as we were doing that, Teresa talked to us about the need in the community,” Hallacy says. “A lot of people have no idea of the need, the difficulty in accessing these items and the expense of it.”
Allen says, “It was a group of all guys and one girl and they packed tampon packages for me and we had the most enlightening conversation and Judge Hallacy was advocating for having these products more widely available in the community at no cost. A number of men in the group were coming out and saying this is needed.”
After his visit to Charitable Union, Hallacy says he reached out to Kelli Scott, Calhoun County Administrator/Controller, to begin the conversation about having free feminine hygiene products in restrooms in county buildings, especially in locations that have high numbers of low-income individuals coming through the doors.
In October, the installation of 39 feminine hygiene product dispensers began in the Calhoun County Building in Marshall, the Albion Building, the Toeller Building, and Calhoun County Justice Center. Scott says the majority of the dispensers will be at the Justice Center because that building has the most public restrooms. She says that installation work is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The initial $20,000 cost for the dispensers and the products was covered by the county’s Capital Improvement Fund budget, which has been boosted by allocations of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. Scott says the annual cost to keep the dispensers stocked and functional will be $1,000 that will come out of the county’s operational budget.
While discussing what led the County’s leadership to address period poverty, Scott says, “I would go back to our highest values. When we look at our facilities, we are always trying to support the public and our employees, and some of those needs were made clearer through employee check-in surveys during COVID. With the ARPA funds we did have the opportunity to make a lot of improvements, including to air quality systems and providing spaces that are healthy and clean for employees and visitors.”
She says the old coin-operated tampon machines were a “real eyesore” and discussions with Allen about period poverty, a term she was previously unaware of, accelerated the upgrade and replacement work.
“What we find from our perspective of supporting employees, if there are people who can’t afford these products and need them it can be very disruptive,” Scott says. “They may have to leave unexpectedly because they don’t have the necessary supplies. We provide first-aid kits. Providing people with the necessary hygiene products is another important component so that they are able to handle their periods while at work.”
The county’s efforts to eliminate disruptions created by lack of access to these products extends to the people they serve, especially those who find themselves in the court system. Scott says, “They are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. Having these products available to them shows that we really care about people, and life happens. One fact of life mainly for women is periods, and if it can be taken care of it won’t become a big emergency.”
Hallacy says he hopes that people will be pleasantly surprised and take advantage of the free products.
“We tend to see people not on their best days and not when life is going well for them. When someone is having financial difficulties and struggles, this is just one more thing they can take off their list,” he says. “All of us were kind of surprised about period poverty and I think Teresa gave us that assignment on purpose to heighten the awareness.”
In June, KCC officials announced the installation of 45 new hands-free period product dispensers in all women’s and gender-neutral restrooms at all campus locations, with all products offered for free
The $25,000 cost to install the dispensers was supported through funding from the KCC Foundation and private donors, starting with local giving circle group Women of Impact. Each dispenser also includes information for individuals needing monthly supplies.
“The need for free and accessible products is real in our community, particularly for low-income individuals,” says Teresa Durham, executive director of the KCC Foundation. “KCC is committed to ensuring students won’t get behind in their studies or drop out altogether due to the lack of access to or having to pay for period products.”
Building awareness, creating sustainability
Allen credits a 2021 mailing campaign done by her organization with creating a communitywide awareness about period poverty and what could be done to address it.
“That created lots of great conversation and dialog and we were able to tell people that we had been providing period products for a number of years,” Allen says. “We get questions like, ’Is this really an issue in our community?’ Part of our conversations include asking the question, When have you talked to them about their period? Someone in need may not be ready to have that conversation yet.”
While the subject of periods may not be a frequent topic of conversation, eliminating period poverty is.
“The United States is not immune. Students, low-income and homeless women and girls, transgender and nonbinary individuals, and those who are currently imprisoned struggle with period poverty
,” says the U of M article. “For many, the price of a box of pads or tampons is exorbitant. Currently 35 states
view these items as luxury goods and impose sales tax, also known as the “tampon tax,”
on menstrual hygiene products. Conversely, groceries and medication are considered nonnegotiable necessities and are tax-exempt in most states. Period products should be, too.”
In November, 2021, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bipartisan bill
that called for the removal of sales tax from feminine hygiene products in the state. However, sales tax is only one barrier to affordable menstrual hygiene, says the Penn State article.
“Although more women than men live in poverty in the United States
, period products cannot be purchased with food stamps, Medicaid, or health insurance spending accounts. According to the 2014 Shriver Report, there are at least 42 million
impoverished women in the U.S. Many of these women experience the indignity and shame of being unable to care for themselves during their periods. A 2019 study
of low-income women corroborates this account. Two-thirds of the women surveyed did not have the resources to buy menstrual hygiene products at some point during the last year, and one-fifth of respondents struggle to afford period products on a monthly basis. Without these items, women’s movement and ambitions are hampered. During these times, they may not feel able to leave their homes, go to work, or participate in civic life.”
Eliminating these barriers for women in Calhoun County has been supported by funding from the Binda Foundation and the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region that will sustain Charitable Union’s Menses Management program. Allen says her organization works with vendors who are part of the Alliance for Period Supplies
a nationwide program comprised of Allied Programs that collect, warehouse, and distribute menstrual/period supplies in local communities.
In 2021, Allen says there were 1,661 client purchasing events at Charitable Union’s store, 29 percent of which involved students with the remainder being adults. A total of 450,000 feminine hygiene products were given away during those interactions. That total has already been surpassed this year with 567,000 items being distributed through October.
Allen says with fears of COVID decreasing, Charitable Union has experienced an increase in the number of individuals coming in for clothing, household items, and other goods. She says this accounts for the uptick in period product distribution.
“I know what we are doing is working because individuals and organizations are asking me how they can advocate for the program and how I reached people,” Allen says. “I think we’re going to see more folks create a program in their business or church. I think maybe in the next year or two there will be a bigger wave of people in our community working to address the issue of period poverty.”