By Jennifer Fernandez
As high school sophomores last school year, Sarah Pazokian and Farah Rosaleen started a nonprofit to take on period poverty by helping fellow students with a basic need.
Every day at Cary’s Green Hope High School, they saw what various research has shown about what’s being called “period poverty” — that people who menstruate but don’t have access to period products are more likely to miss work or school.
It’s a more widespread problem than commonly known. In the United States, one in four teens has missed class due to the lack of period products such as tampons or pads, according to Alliance for Period Supplies. And two in five women struggle to buy period products due to lack of income, the nonprofit said.
“Our take is that period supplies are school supplies, and nobody should have to choose between going to class and having their period,” said Michelle Old, founder and CEO of Diaper Bank of North Carolina.
A growing need
The Diaper Bank has seen an 800 percent increase in requests for period products since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and “it has not slowed down at all,” Old said.
In 2021, the General Assembly approved giving $250,000 to schools to spend on period products. Schools then inundated the Feminine Hygiene Products Grant Program with requests, and it took less than a week for the money to run out, according to a report to the legislature from the state Department of Public Instruction.
“Many of the awardees indicated that some students rely on their school to provide the feminine hygiene products they need, as their families may not have the financial means to purchase the products,” the report noted in the introduction.
The 66 grants ranged from $500 to $5,000 and went to districts large and small, urban and rural. Along with tampons and pads, schools planned to use the money for other items, such as soap, underwear and even educational materials.
Burke County Public Schools in northwest North Carolina said in its grant request that it spends about $2,000 annually on feminine hygiene products for students.
“We are a rural area with a great deal of poverty,” the district of about 11,200 students wrote in its application for a grant. “These products are very expensive. Students would be able to remain at school and continue learning if we receive this grant.”
The district received $5,000, which it said it planned to use to buy tampons and pads.
Roanoke Rapids Graded School District planned to spend its $5,000 on tampons, pads and puberty education materials.
In its application, the tiny district of about 2,600 students in the northeast corner of the state described how an inability to pay for feminine hygiene products affected students.
“Some students are missing school, are using toilet paper for pads, and are soiling their clothes due to no available hygiene products,” the district wrote. “Some students are also afraid to attend school when on their period because they are afraid of being bullied due to soiled clothes from lack of female hygiene products.”
In the 2022-23 budget, legislators approved a second round of money for the grant program, requiring a report on how the money was spent be submitted no later than March 15, 2023.
The report will highlight information on which schools and districts received funding, what they bought and the impact on student health and well-being, Lillian Pinto, a reproductive health consultant with the schools department, said in an email.
Feminine hygiene bills
Last year, the General Assembly agreed to make the period products grant permanent, although legislators did not set a recurring amount.
That second round ended up doling out another $250,000, according to bill sponsor Sen. Natasha Marcus’s office. It focused on schools not served the first time.
Marcus (D-Davidson) said she’d like to see the amount increased to $500,000 or more.
She was among sponsors in 2021 of a bill that eventually led to the initial grant program.
She also has filed bills seeking to end taxes on period products. So far, the sales tax bills haven’t gotten past committee.
As of September 2022, North Carolina remains one of 22 states that tax period products, according to Alliance for Period Supplies. The organization said that these states view period products as a “luxury item” instead of a basic necessity such as food or medicine, which either aren’t taxed or are taxed at a lower rate.
North Carolina’s general state sales tax is 4.75 percent, which doesn’t include local taxes. For example, residents in the state’s two most populous counties — Wake and Mecklenburg — pay a total of 7.25 percent when local taxes are added.
Federal assistance programs, such as food benefits and Medicaid, cannot be used for period products, which advocates such as Old say leaves the most vulnerable sometimes unable to afford basic hygiene items.
In North Carolina, legislators are trying again this session to address period poverty, Marcus said. The bill is still in the works, so she doesn’t know yet if increasing the grant program and making the tax change will be in one bill or two.
Marcus said the General Assembly is often talking about how to cut the tax burden.
“Seems to me,” she said, “this is a no-brainer.”
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She would also like to see the new grant program increased to more than $500,000.
“It’s a monthly occurrence,” Marcus said. “So, if you’re out of school every time you have your period, you’re missing a lot of school.”
From diapers to pads
The Diaper Bank of North Carolina launched in 2013 with a focus on helping families get diapers.
They expanded to working with moms on other needs and then added period products after hearing from teachers about students missing class because they didn’t have access to pads or tampons, Old said.
“It was something talked about in [developing] countries happening, but not here in our communities,” Old said.
Now called “Period Power,” the program gives out around 750,000 period products a year. About half of recipients are schools, and the rest are homeless shelters, food banks and mobile distributions throughout the state where the Diaper Bank doesn’t have an established warehouse.
The nonprofit’s four warehouses — in Durham, Wilmington, Winston-Salem and now Charlotte — serve multiple counties around them.
A new federal grant allowed Period Power to expand to 13 counties not served by one of the warehouses, Old said.
The program serves students in 278 schools in the state.
“Our goal is to have period products in every single public school in North Carolina,” she said.
Students step up
As part of Period Project NC, the organization created by students Pazokian and Rosaleen, a second school in Cary offered free pads to students.
Earlier this year, student-ambassadors set up dispensers in the girls bathrooms at Green Hope. Then there was a trial phase at Panther Creek High School, and two more schools are looking to add them.
Pazokian said she and Rosaleen wanted to make it easier for students to get period products at school if they didn’t have access to them at home. And at some schools, students have to go to the front of the class to ask to go to the front office if they need to get a period product, Pazokian said. That can be embarrassing and shameful for the student, she said. But at Period Project NC schools, every girls bathroom has a dispenser.
While the dispensers have so far only gone to schools in the Wake County Public School System, Pazokian said there is interest and support across the state.
The program has about 95 student-ambassadors in 21 schools, she said. They help raise money, awareness and interest in bringing the program to their schools.
“So far students have been really excited to get involved, and they’ve really loved it,” said Pazokian, 16, now a junior. “There’s been a lot of positive feedback, and they help us get our foot in the door at their schools.”
At schools with dispensers, Period Project NC tasks the student ambassadors with making sure the devices get restocked.
So far the group has just focused on high schools because of practicality issues, but Pazokian said it certainly is something that affects middle school and even some elementary school students.
She said they’re “working to diminish menstrual inequity at least at the school level.”