Nonprofits tackle period poverty in NC

Nonprofits tackle period poverty in NC

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.

Farah Rosaleen, left, and Sarah Pazokian, right, fill dispensers with feminine hygiene products. The two teens started the nonprofit “Period Project NC” while sophomores at Green Hope High School in Cary. The goal is to make it easier for students to access period products while at school. Credit: Courtesy of Period Project NC

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. 

Pazokian and Rosaleen’s Period Project NC joins groups like the Diaper Bank of North Carolina in expanding efforts to make feminine hygiene products easily accessible in schools across the state.

“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. 

Diaper Bank of North Carolina also collects menstrual products such as pads and tampons.

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.”

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.

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