Free tampons and pads in school? That's as radical as free toilet paper and hand soap

This article originally appeared on the Star Tribune website on January 21, 2022. You can find the original here.

Kristy Wesson and Margie Solomon of the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota and student Elif Ozturk deliver menstrual products to Hopkins High School, where Elif is a student, on Sept. 30, 2021.

Elif Ozturk is only 15, but she's wise to the unspoken code that has been ingrained in her since middle school: If you're on your period and you're out of tampons, be discreet as you try to get your hands on one.

"It's always been a taboo subject. It's the thing you hide under your sleeve, it's the thing you don't want people to know about," she said. "People put in our brains our whole lives that this is something you need to keep private."

When she began hearing these whispered pleas from friends at school, she learned that while some girls had forgotten their products at home, others could not afford them. She said some students have even skipped school because of the stress of not knowing whether they would bleed through their clothing in class.

"It's time we change the stigma around period products," said Elif, a sophomore at Hopkins High School who believes menstrual products should be provided the same way we dispense toilet paper. "It's not a luxury, it's a necessity."

Elif has been working with state legislators and the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota on a bill that would require public schools that serve students in fourth through 12th grades to stock their restrooms with free menstrual products. She says she wants to remove the shame around menstruation and what some advocates are calling "period poverty" — the fact that some people lack access to sanitary products.

Last year, a national study commissioned by Thinx and the advocacy group PERIOD found that 23% of students have struggled to afford menstrual products. Students of color, those who come from lower-income families, and rural students were disproportionately affected, the researchers found. As it's drafted, the measure would be funded at about $2 million a year — roughly an education spending increase of $2 per student. It builds on an effort last year that would have required schools to stock their bathrooms with period products — but that bill did not come with dedicated funding, said chief author Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton. Schools shouldn't "have to choose between social workers, textbooks and tampons," Feist said. "All of those things are critically important to student success."

Feist credits Elif for educating her about what's becoming known as menstrual equity, and how the lack of period products can keep students away from class. The nurse at the school where Feist's son attends confirmed the items are in demand.

"She says every single day, students will come to her in need of menstrual products, and a lot of times the staff actually pays for them," Feist said.

Just as we now recognize how hunger can affect student learning, it's time we consider how period poverty can set a child back. Whether you're distracted by a rumbling stomach or the prospect of leaking through your jeans, your ability to focus on a geometry test is diminished. We ask 13-year-old girls to stay on top of their stock of personal supplies of period products. But we don't expect, for example, grown men to bring their own toilet paper rolls to the office if they need to go No. 2 during the workday.

"We don't say, 'Well, you should poop at home,' " said Beth Gendler, executive director on the National Council of Jewish Women Minnesota. "It's not an optional thing for people who menstruate."

California, New Hampshire and Illinois are among the handful of states mandating school restrooms to offer free tampons and pads, and the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., recently required all public bathrooms in the city to provide sanitary products.

In Minnesota, Gendler's organization has been teaming up with Feist and other DFLers such as Sen. Steve Cwodzinski on the legislation, but she believes this matter needs not be politically divisive. "This is just a bathroom supply we've overlooked," Gendler said. My own reckoning came just a few years ago at my former workplace. A 19-year-old college intern was surprised to see our restrooms did not provide free tampons and pads. Unimpressed with the metal coin slot-operated dispensers that charged a quarter for this emergency item, she didn't wait for change to happen. By the end of her internship, every restroom I visited in the building included a cute countertop basket filled with tampons and pads, free for the taking. It was as radical as a box of tissues. Thank you, Generation Z.

Short of a legislative fix, Gendler's nonprofit has been filling in the gaps by securing donations and delivering menstrual-hygiene items to schools and community organizations. They recently dropped off 12,000 items to the Minneapolis Public Schools district office. Since March 2020, her organization has distributed about 140,000 pads, tampons, menstrual cups and period underwear across the state.

"It's a source of embarrassment that it hadn't occurred to me as a public policy issue we needed to address," said Gendler, who learned of period poverty only a few years ago after a Minneapolis family described a need for menstrual products for homeless and highly mobile students at their school who did not have the means to buy them. And now, youth activists like Elif are helping lead the movement to destigmatize periods and equalize access to a basic need. The Minnesota bill is expected to be introduced on Jan. 31, the first day of the legislative session.


It's a small, relatively inexpensive fix that could "help so many young girls," Elif said. "I'd be happy to be part of that change."

Laura Yuen is a features columnist for the Star Tribune. She explores parenting, gender, family and relationships, with special attention on women and underrepresented communities. With an eye for the human tales within every news story, she calls forth the deeper resonance of a story, to humanize it, and make it universal. She loves opportunities to expand the narrative of what it means to be a person of color in Minnesota.

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