By Bridget Manley, publisher
One day at Riverside Family Support in Harrisonburg, director Carrie Landis met with a client who was experiencing homelessness and asked for toilet paper. The woman told Landis that she used the toilet paper in place of a feminine hygiene product.
“She told me there was no way for her to get [feminine hygiene products], and so women go into public restrooms and offices and take the toilet paper,” Landis said. “And that’s how they deal with it.”
Shocked, Landis inquired more. Her clients began to tell her that while they can get food from food pantries, condoms from the health department, and other necessities from various agencies around town, they did not have reliable access to sanitary napkins.
“Feminine products should not be a privilege,” she said.
And so, Landis is preparing to open a pantry to supply women with sanitary napkins and diapers, and is asking the community for donations to help fill a need that many people aren’t even aware of.
The Undercover Pantry will open officially on Jan. 5, 2022, and will provide women and mothers with access to free tampons, sanitary napkins and diapers from Riverside Family Support’s office at 420 East Market Street in Harrisonburg.
Period poverty refers to the inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and educations, including access to sanitary products, washing facilities, and waste management.
According to the American Medical Women’s Association, American women struggle to achieve adequate menstrual hygiene due to lack of access and lack of income. In addition, 35 states tax sanitary napkins as non-essential items, while men’s grooming products and erectile dysfunction medication are not taxed.
Virginia is among the states that levy what is known as “The Pink Tax,” although Gov. Northam did sign a bill in 2019 that lowered the retail sales tax on personal hygiene products to 2.5 percent.
The Blue Ridge Area Food Banks, which serves food to 118,300 people on average each month through a network of food pantries throughout the Valley, says that when they receive donations of diapers and sanitary napkins, they will distribute them to their pantries. But they say that those donations are not consistent, and they do not distribute those products on a regular basis.
There are diaper pantries in the Valley, but many struggling mothers find it hard to access diaper resources.
In addition, diapers and feminine hygiene products are not covered by S.N.A.P. benefits or WIC.
Landis said that the stigma of menstruation is made worse for women experiencing homelessness. Her office started stocking a cabinet in the bathroom with sanitary napkins for staff, and it would be emptied by women with no other access to feminine hygiene products.
“It creates an atmosphere of shame, of ‘now I’ve had to steal to fulfill this need that I can’t control,’” Landis said.
Landis also said that for single mothers and other women on tight budgets, the extra expense of tampons and pads can make a tight budget even tighter.
“I’ve budgeted with moms, particularly moms who are leaving a bad situation, and so they are single mom for the first time, and there are a lot of new expenses that they don’t think about when they are budgeting,” Landis said. “I had a mom say the other day, ‘I never worked tampons into my budget.’ And I think, yeah, they are so expensive.”
The average price for a box of tampons is $7, and women typically spend around $50 a year on feminine hygiene products. Landis argues that low income families are already finding it hard to meet their basic human needs.
“If you have a family with yourself and three teenage girls, in addition to yourself, that’s like, fifty dollars a month,” Landis said.
The Undercover Pantry is asking for donations of tampons, pads and diapers before their January launch. Landis says she is trying to keep it streamlined to just those products with the idea that they can provide exactly what is needed.
Donations can be brought to Riverside Family Support, or by contacting [email protected] or (540) 217-2311. Landis says they can come pick donations if needed as well.
The pantry will service women needing assistance on the first Wednesday of every month. Anyone who needs assistance can contact Riverside Family Support by phone, or by filling out an online contact form. Delivery will also be available for those who need it.
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