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CLARKSDALE — On a recent Wednesday morning, Chelesa Presley and one volunteer packed double the amount of menstrual products and infant diapers into brown paper bags and plastic wrap to distribute across the state. With jobs lost and schools closed due to COVID-19, the demand for these items are high, especially for some communities in the Mississippi Delta. But the supply is getting low, said Presley, executive director of the Diaper Bank of the Delta.
The Diaper Bank, a nonprofit addressing diaper needs along with period needs and childhood poverty in North Mississippi, has stored more than 50,000 items — tampons, pads, liners, baby wipes, and infant diapers, to name a few. The organization provides an essential service in Mississippi, where nearly 20 percent of the state lives in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. Now, there is another issue impacting women already struggling to make ends meet — coronavirus has caused thousands of Mississippians to lose their jobs, and with the state under a shelter-in-place order until at least April 20, Presley isn’t sure how long this batch of supplies will last.
“With our normal demand, it would serve us six months. Last year we served over 300 families and each of those families averaged two children each (30 diapers) — that’s a lot of diapers,” Presley said. “(They) are calling and saying, ‘Hey, the casinos are closed. We don’t have money. We can’t get these items and … are not covered by food stamps or WIC.”
The coronavirus pandemic has led many shoppers to resort to “panic buying,” where people buy food and household items in bulk, leaving grocery and convenience stores with empty shelves. What’s missing out of the larger conversation, women and children advocates say, is the scarcity of hygiene products for low-income women and children.
In the United States, women comprise half of the population. However, nearly two-thirds of low-income women couldn’t afford feminine hygiene products like tampons or pads during a survey. This phenomenon is an extension of “period poverty,” or the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education due to lack of access or income.
Advocates argue menstrual health isn’t just “a woman’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem.” Researchers cited consequences that affect employment, finances, education, and self-esteem issues. A recent study led by St. Louis University researchers found 36 percent of women missed days of work due to a lack of adequate period hygiene supplies. It also found 21 percent of 200 low-income women surveyed couldn’t buy feminine hygiene products on a monthly basis. Nearly half had to choose between buying food or period-related products.
This is the reality in a state where poverty “is very much real,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, a Jackson-based nonprofit that provides financial and logistical access for abortions and advocates for reproductive health justice.
“You don’t want someone using tampons too long. You don’t want people taking apart pads and making their own. It’s unsanitary. I love the fact we’re so scrappy and such survivors but it’s so not what we want from a public health perspective,” she said in a phone call with Mississippi Today.
In her own reproductive health work, Bertram Roberts saw the need for low-income families in the Jackson area. So, in 2018, the organization opened a diaper closet and opened a period supply closet a year later. The closets include baby wipes, baby diapers, adult diapers, pads, tampons, and more.
Mississippi isn’t the only state seeing shortages in feminine hygiene products. Other organizations have tripled their supply. I Support Girls, an international nonprofit that collects donations of feminine hygiene products and bras for shelters, prisons and people in need, donated 900,000 menstrual products this March compared to under 200,000 last year around the same time, The New York Times reported.
In regards to baby items, Moms Helping Moms Foundation, a New Jersey baby supply and diaper bank, gave out more than 9,000 diapers in one week in comparison to a normal 4,000 in a week, NJ.com reported.
Similarly to the Diaper Bank, Bertram Roberts has a small staff that is only able to support a little more than 10 families. In order to reach more people, organizing around this issue should be a priority, she said.
“I’ve seen pushes to get everyone fed, but I haven’t seen conversations around toiletries except for when it comes to people that are houseless … but not everyone who needs those things are houseless.”