Schools are closed, but continue to provide meals
03:27 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Laura Blackburn is director of GiveRise, Thinx, Inc.’s social impact program and former teacher. Nadya Okamoto is executive director of PERIOD, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating period poverty in the United States. The opinions expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Over the past few weeks, so much has changed about daily life due to the spread of Covid-19. This pandemic has called for us to work together and protect our most vulnerable communities – and it has also exposed gaps in our social safety net for millions of Americans, including nearly 30 million students in the US who depend on free or low-cost meals provided by schools as their primary source of nutrition.

Laura Blackburn
Nadya Okamoto

As schools across our country continue to close, some for the rest of the year, these students are in jeopardy.

The social distancing necessary for our response to Covid-19 has forced us to jump from crisis to crisis, but as we focus on making sure kids in America don’t go hungry without access to school meals, another element of public health is often ignored: There are millions of US students living below the poverty line, many of whom also rely on their schools to provide free menstrual hygiene products.

In the face of a pandemic, we need to make sure that as we support our medical professionals, teachers, parents and hungry students, we also don’t forget about the young people in our country who are affected by period poverty. As grocery store shelves are emptied, supply chains are disrupted and students’ school environments are shifting, it’s time to enact policy that will ensure free and easy access to period products for those who can’t afford them.

This is a simple matter of public health and safety, and it’s something we don’t talk about enough.

Local governments in New York City, Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee are acting quickly to make sure meals are available for their students. Schools in Washington state, Virginia and Indiana are chartering school buses to deliver food to students’ homes, because meal delivery service is crucial – especially for anyone staying with their caregivers in quarantine, and for low-income families who face additional barriers to accessing food.

The same students who most benefit from ongoing meal services are often also in need of other products and services, including period products. Just like toilet paper and soap – which people are stockpiling across the country – period products are a necessity for anyone who menstruates. Using a pad or tampon for an extended period of time, or bleeding into toilet paper or rags, can put a person at risk for a host of infections and conditions like toxic shock.

Period poverty isn’t well-documented or studied (despite its proliferation throughout the country), and it affects a demographic that doesn’t have much representation in our government.

Public schools in New York, Illinois and California, as well as a handful of other districts across the country, currently provide free menstrual products to students. Dozens of other states, often driven by grassroots activists, have pending legislation to do the same. But no policy is in place for how this access translates during a pandemic.

Today, and for the foreseeable future without swift action and policy change, young people can continue to face the toxic effects of period poverty – such as lack of confidence, anxiety and depression – and can follow them into adulthood.

According to our research, 1 in 5 students have struggled to afford period products or were not able to purchase them at all, and 61% have worn a tampon or pad for more than four hours because they did not have enough access to the period products they needed.

With hospitals already overrun and the school system in a state of flux, free menstrual products are a simple and necessary way to support the mental health and physical safety of our students. The longer we delay access, the more we put our students’ well-being at risk. There are many things we can do now, on a local and federal level, to enact change.

As local school boards are creating solutions for meal distribution, they can consider including menstrual product care packages along with lunch pick-ups and deliveries

In areas where schools are not able to provide access to period products, we can call on local lawmakers or the schools themselves to create shortlists of organizations that people can contact for free, accessible products in their area.

State governments can also eliminate or suspend the sales tax on tampons to provide monetary relief and reduce financial stress for students and their families. In the US, the average person spends $13.25 a month on menstrual products, that adds up quickly for families living at or below the poverty line.

Most importantly, as federal lawmakers consider funding for relief across the US, they can and should include a provision to ensure access to period products for the young people who need them. The Senate’s recent passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package reclassifies menstrual products as “medical expenses,” allowing shoppers to buy them with their FSAs or HSA debit cards. This is a step in the right direction.

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    Having food, socially distancing and staying healthy are distinctly important right now. With that said, about one in five US children are living in poverty – a statistic likely to grow in the coming months as coronavirus shutdowns hit the economy.

    Families should not have to make the choice between food, shelter and basic personal hygiene products. We need the right policies in place for students who depend on schools for access to the services and products they need.