Period poverty is a phenomenon in which individuals are unable to access the menstrual care products they need to have healthy and hygienic periods. It’s a pervasive issue that affects communities around the world, including ones we serve here in New York City.
In this article, we’re going to explore the subject of period poverty by defining what it is, digging into some research, consulting with experts, and discussing how we tackle the issue at Food Bank.
What is Period Poverty?
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “period poverty,” it basically refers to the difficulty some folks face in affording the menstrual hygiene products they need to safely take care of their periods. The monthly cost of period products can be extremely prohibitive for individuals already struggling to pay for things like food, rent, and utilities. So, they may go without, meaning they’ll either skip work or school to avoid the shame of menstruating in public without these tools or care for their periods using unsanitary goods like paper bags, toilet paper, bits of cloth, and rags.
As the World Bank writes in its report on Period Poverty: “Given the multiple challenges [menstruators] face, it is evident that promoting menstrual hygiene management is not only a sanitation matter; it is also an important step towards safeguarding the dignity, bodily integrity, and overall life opportunities of [all who menstruate].”
And this isn’t just anecdotal – though limited, research on the subject of period poverty has been gaining ground in recent years. A 2019 study explored the menstrual needs of low-income communities by surveying clients at 10 non-profit organizations in St. Louis. Researchers discovered that 64% of the 183 respondents were unable to afford menstrual care products in the previous year and nearly half could not afford to buy both food and menstrual hygiene products.
The mental health implications are clear; according to a 2021 report, period poverty was found to be associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression.
If the problem is so obvious, why hasn’t it been solved? One of the biggest roadblocks is that we’re not very good about talking about periods. There’s an immense amount of shame and stigma surrounding the topic, which can make it difficult for folks to have honest conversations about the needs of those who menstruate.
“A major obstacle that stands in front of us... is this taboo around menstruation,” explains Period Inc. founder Nadya Okamoto in her 2016 TEDx Talk on the subject. "The most sustainable way to accomplishing... gender equality is by improving education and employment opportunities for women and girls. But no matter how much attention we put toward creating these opportunities, women and girls cannot take full advantage of them if periods [and period poverty] aren’t addressed.”
This sentiment was echoed by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, Vice President for Development at the Brennan Center for Justice, founder of the non-profit group Period Equity, and author of Periods Gone Public. As she explained to me, she sees it as a scale of stigma, ranging from shushed conversations in the home to full-on derision in certain communities.
The stigma is real, and there are many communities in which periods are derided, seen as culturally or socially undesirable, or viewed as dirty and problematic. There are places where people are forced out of public life when their periods begin. There’s a wide array of stigma that’s rooted in all of these institutions in our lives, whether cultural or religious, whether familial or generational.
Advancing a public agenda around menstruation, then, is about dismantling this stigma. According to Weiss-Wolf, the only way to make menstruating more equitable is to normalize the discussion, to essentially create a “new bar” for what normal is. By doing this, we could increase access to period products (so folks could get to them for free without judgment) and finally do away with things like the much-maligned Tampon Tax.
Defeating the Tampon Tax
In many states, menstrual care products like tampons, pads, cups, and sponges are subject to sales tax when other items (like dandruff shampoo in Texas, licorice in Arizona, and chocolate bars in California) are not. They’re also not covered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which means that even if you qualify for SNAP benefits, you still have to pay for period products.
This may not seem like that big of a deal, but the fact that this tax only affects those who menstruate marks it as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Further, it prevents these products from being labeled as what they are – essentials that should be available to whoever needs them whenever they need them.
Weiss-Wolf's work at Period Equity is all about fighting against this tax by leveraging lawsuits, tracking state movement on the tax, and raising awareness about the issue. There are still currently 30 states that tax menstrual hygiene products, and you can see the zany products they don’t tax on this fun interactive map.
Ultimately, defeating the Tampon Tax is kind of like a Trojan Horse – eliminating it won’t immediately solve the issue of period poverty, but it will lift a small financial burden for those who can afford to buy these goods, challenge antiquated tax standards, and start a wider conversation about menstruation in the United States.
“I come at this movement as both a lawyer and policy thinker,” explains Weiss-Wolf. “So, it’s not that the things that I work on need to be the focal point... but they are places where there’s opportunity to do policy and get things done.”
Expanding the Conversation
In addition to destigmatizing periods and fighting for policy change on the Hill, it’s vital that we expand and deepen our conversations around menstruation to make them more inclusive. Not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate. Period poverty affects not only women and girls, but transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people, too.
Menstruation is a natural bodily process, so there’s really no need to gender it at all. Instead of calling tampons and pads “feminine hygiene products,” for example, try calling them “menstrual care products” or “menstrual hygiene products.” When referring to people who have periods, try the term “menstruator,” an inclusive descriptor that embodies all who menstruate.
At Food Bank, we’re working to neutralize our own conversations around period poverty. When we first started our “Woman to Woman” campaign in 2016, we were focusing on serving the unique needs of the 1 in 5 women and girls facing poverty in New York City. We soon realized, though, that they weren’t the only ones struggling to access menstrual care products or education around menstruation. That’s why we’re committed to being as inclusive as possible when talking about or educating on this subject.
"When we think about this stigma attached to period poverty, we’re not just thinking about how it affects women and girls,” explains Amanda Williams, Manager of School & Community Based Initiatives at Food Bank For New York City. “It’s a widespread narrative that people can be a part of, however they identify.”
Building on the Momentum
Thankfully, there’s been a lot of great movement on the issue of menstrual equity in the past few years. Scotland, for example, made headlines in November when it became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. New Zealand quickly followed with the announcement that it would be providing free period products in all schools. And in New York City, two teenage advocates campaigned for period products to be included in COVID-19 emergency relief efforts... and won.
Change is possible, and we’re feeling it in this very moment. Last spring, Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced the “Menstrual Equity for All Act” in Congress, which proposed that Medicaid cover menstrual product purchases and demanded that schools, workplaces, and shelters provide free period products. Proponents of the bill argue that increasing access to these goods will not only alleviate a financial strain, but also diminish period shame.
Some companies are also getting involved in these efforts. In 2018, Procter & Gamble launched its #EndPeriodPoverty campaign, which provides Always and Tampax products to food banks in the Feeding America network, including Food Bank For New York City. We then take these products and distribute them throughout our member network of food pantries, soup kitchens, and schools.
At the moment, we partner with 25 schools across the five boroughs to provide free menstrual care products to their students, making it possible for them to access these goods without judgement or shame.
“We began doing this three or four years ago when there was an ask around hygiene products brought to the New York City Council,” Williams told me. “The City Council was hearing from these families that this issue was as important as food insecurity, as housing insecurity. At Food Bank, when you get a chance to engage with these families... [you learn] that there are other pieces that are needed in a family to survive.”
If you’re ready to join us in the fight against period poverty in New York City and beyond, visit our "Woman to Woman” campaign hub to find out how you can get involved. You can donate funds, give menstrual care products directly to our member agencies on the ground, or even start a personal fundraiser to get your family and friends involved, too.
And if you simply want to learn more about the issue, check out these fantastic resources:
“At Food Pantries, Addressing the Needs of Women” - The New York Times
“Menstrual Equity: A Legislative Toolkit” - Period Equity & ACLU
“The Fight for Menstrual Equity Continues in 2021” - Marie Claire