“Periods don’t stop for pandemics.”
— Dana Marlowe, founder and executive director of the nonprofit I Support the Girls
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Dana Marlowe was preparing her family’s home for quarantine, stocking up on food and school supplies, when she received an unexpected phone call: Would she trade a box of tampons for 36 homemade matzo balls?
Her friend making the request was desperate. She had scoured all the pharmacies in her neighborhood for tampons and pads, but the shelves were picked clean.
For Marlowe, who runs the nonprofit I Support the Girls, which collects donations of feminine hygiene products and bras for shelters, prisons and people in need, the plea set off alarm bells.
It was clear that pandemic panic shopping was already causing shortages of menstrual products.
Marlowe received over 600 emails from individuals around the country requesting donations because they couldn’t find tampons and pads in their local stores; while social service workers in California, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., said they too were seeing women struggle with feminine hygiene needs.
And the women hardest hit, Marlowe realized, would be those who had just lost their jobs and were straining to make ends meet. While the wealthy can stockpile goods, people who live paycheck to paycheck cannot.
“Periods don’t stop for pandemics,” Marlowe said. “And in times of disasters, like global pandemics, it’s easy to overlook the basic essentials folks need for their dignity.”
Just as the pandemic has disrupted work, school and social routines, so hoarding has interrupted the supply of menstrual products. Those who can afford to hoard have done so, leaving women who have lower incomes without supplies. For women who usually rely on free menstrual products — from a school nurse, say — that avenue is now closed. And those who might normally get menstrual products from shelters or social service centers are coming up empty as demand has surged.
This has left organizations scrambling to order in bulk.
Erin Lind, program coordinator at a domestic violence shelter in Orange County, Calif., said she recently went online to bulk order tampons and pads and received a frustrating alert: delays in online shipment. Marlowe’s organization pitched in to bridge the gap, sending the shelter nearly 1,500 products last month.
Marlowe’s organization donated 900,000 menstrual products this March compared with just under 200,000 products in March 2019, and more than any other month in its five-year history. She has also received more requests than ever before from more than 130 organizations and cities.
In partnership with the menstrual product company LOLA, Marlowe sent 100,000 supplies to Los Angeles, where the mayor’s office has added 1,600 emergency shelter beds in city recreation centers. She sent more than 2,000 products to the city of Trenton, N.J., which requested them for its women who are homeless. And she donated more than 24,000 products to the Salvation Army National Capital Area Command, which serves Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Marlowe and her team even heard from international students stranded at American colleges: Last month she sent boxes to a group of young women stuck on campus at George Mason University.
“Normally a municipality or small city thinks of food drives or clothing drives, but the menstrual hygiene products are too often neglected,” said Reed Gusciora, the mayor of Trenton, in an interview. “These products are a right, not a privilege.”
It’s especially important because women might feel ashamed requesting supplies, said Angela Soriano, a volunteer and donation drive manager at the Salvation Army in the D.C. area.
“It’s uncomfortable to talk about,” Soriano said, which is why some centers she works with distribute menstrual products whether they’re requested or not. A lot of these women are “embarrassed to ask.”
Soriano has spent recent days coordinating donations for the young women who rely on social service programs that are now at risk of being canceled because of the coronavirus, like the Salvation Army’s summer camp. “If that camp doesn’t happen, what’s going to happen to those young girls getting their periods for the first time?” she wondered.
Compounding the issue of access is price gouging.
Marni Sommer, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia School of Public Health, recently received a call from a student telling her that she had seen the price for tampons in her local store jump $3 this month. In Alabama, the state attorney general teamed up with eBay to crack down on the inflated costs of essential goods like tampons.
For a lot of families, if it comes down to buying food or buying menstrual products, the latter will be shunted, Sommer said. Aside from the sheer inconvenience of it, when pads and tampons aren’t supplied in shelters, women often turn to using ripped up T-shirts and mattresses, which can carry health risks.
To be sure, there’s always an increased need for feminine hygiene products when disasters like hurricanes or other health crises strike.
But the coronavirus pandemic is unlike previous disasters Marlowe has seen, because the tampon and pad shortage is affecting everyone.
People unaccustomed to scrambling for menstrual supplies are desperately scanning the bare shelves in stores. “Stop hoarding menstrual products!” wrote I Support the Girls in a recent tweet.
Readers: What product shortages are you seeing in stores or online? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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