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Poor access to period products keeps some Cumberland County students out of school


Fridays are “shopping days” for Alger B. Wilkins High School students, but those shopping trips don’t involve a visit to Cross Creek Mall. 

Instead, students in need walk down the hall to the “Warriors Pantry,” a room of six shelves, a freezer and a refrigerator lovingly replenished by the school’s social worker, NaTasha Thompson, and a bevy of community partners.

But some of the pantry’s most crucial items address an issue that some Cumberland County residents may not even know exists — something called “period poverty.” 

According to Period Power, an initiative by the Diaper Bank of North Carolina to provide period supplies to schools throughout the state, period poverty is “the prevalent phenomena of being unable to afford products such as pads, tampons or liners to manage menstrual bleeding.” 

A 2021 study by period product brand U by Kotex found that two in five people reported difficulties in buying period supplies. In North Carolina, one in six people who menstruate and are ages 12 to 44 live below the Federal Poverty Line, meaning hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians may quietly struggle with period poverty, including many of the 15.9% people in poverty in Cumberland County.

But if Thompson and Cumberland County Commissioner Dr. Toni Stewart have anything to say about it, that number won’t have to include Cumberland County Schools students. 

‘It’s a real issue’

When students and their families must choose between food or rent payments and period supplies, the ramifications extend far beyond discomfort. According to the Alliance for Period Supplies, a national organization founded by U by Kotex in 2018 to promote access to period supplies, 38% of low-income women have missed work, school or other events because they couldn’t get period products.

Michelle Schaefer-Old, the executive director of the Diaper Bank of North Carolina, told CityView her organization has seen a 2,000% increase in requests for period products since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our research shows that 76% of the individuals that receive our services are working one to three jobs and still cannot afford hygiene items,” Schaefer-Old said. “And every single time a parent or an individual is going to choose to buy food instead of hygiene items, because those are the hard choices they have to make, and they’re going to choose to go without. It’s a real issue in North Carolina.” 

For students, that means missing school, Thompson told CityView. 

“If you’ve been to the store lately and you’ve looked at the shelves and you’ve looked at prices, period products are expensive,” she said. “They may resort to using tissue, not having the appropriate sanitary products that they need for their period, and of course, they’re not able to come to school for a day or two, [a] couple days.” 

In Cumberland County, period products have a 7% sales tax, according to the North Carolina Dept. of Revenue. That’s a combination of the statewide 4.75% sales tax rate and the county’s additional 2.25% sales tax. County sales tax rates vary from 1.75% to 2.75%.

From 2013 to 2023, the Diaper Bank of North Carolina distributed 2,532,443 free period products to 126,622 people. According to the organization’s website, on average, they distribute 57,724 products each month to 2,886 people. The Period Power initiative also serves over 300 public schools in North Carolina, though no Cumberland County schools are currently on that list.

A 2018 survey by period product brand Always found that 1 in 5 female students in the U.S. reported missing school because of their period.

“We have people that are using items like socks and towels when they have their periods,” Schaefer-Old said. “They cannot afford the most basic hygiene items, and that’s what it comes down to.” 

How a county commissioner got involved

Stewart told CityView she began working with Alger B. Wilkins’ pantry in 2022 and learned about period poverty from Thompson.

“I had never heard of it. I actually went on social media and … so many people said they had never heard of it,” Stewart said. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to end it, then. We have to end it.’” 

Though she wasn’t familiar with the term “period poverty,” Stewart recalled her experiences with the issue when she ran a shelter for homeless women at the Hope Center.

“I’ve seen women come in the shelter with blood on their pants,” she said. “And they will go to sleep in what they have on and get up and walk out. Because they don’t have [supplies].” 

And as Cumberland County schools continue to serve as a safe haven for many students, Stewart said it is crucial to ensure no student has to miss out because of their period. 

“School is so much more than school, especially for these students,” she said. “Then they’re not able to come because of another barrier? Something they can’t control, keeping them from their safe place? It just became a common sense thing.” 

Stewart regularly drops off many items, including menstrual products, to Alger B. Wilkins. Thompson said the school also partners with organizations like Second Harvest Food Bank and True Vine Ministries. 

“Dr. Stewart saw that there was a need,” Thompson said. “She jumped on board and just asked, ‘What is it that you need for your students?’” 

On Friday morning, the Warriors Pantry was stocked with dozens of boxes of tampons, underwear liners, pads and wipes, in addition to a wide variety of food and hygiene products. 

Thompson said it would all be gone by when students return after the weekend. During the 2022-2023 school year, she said, the pantry typically saw 35 to 40 students on Fridays. Last Friday, she said, 78 students used it.

That’s almost half of the school’s student body.

How advocates are helping

In July 2022, state legislators created the Feminine Hygiene Products Grant Program as part of the state budget, which provided $250,000 in grants to public schools to purchase period supplies. 

The North Carolina Dept. of Public Instruction reported that for this school year, 149 public school units applied in one week, but only 64 public school units received funding. The Sandhills region only got 8% of those funds, and no Cumberland County schools were a part of that, the report states.

Advocates like Schaefer-Old will visit the North Carolina State Capitol on May 22 to ask legislators for more funding for the program as part of the national Period Poverty Awareness Week from May 20 - May 28.

Schaefer-Old said the group she belongs to, the Period Power Coalition, will also lobby for the following issues: 

  • Providing period products in every school bathroom in the state
  • Providing adequate period supplies to inmates in state prisons
  • Eliminating the sales tax for period products in North Carolina

“There’s just a lot of misconceptions. It’s still a taboo topic,” she said. “It’s so very difficult for us to talk about this issue that affects over half of North Carolinians. I would love to see a change in that, but I don’t know what it would take.” 

Lacey Gero, the director of government relations for the National Diaper Bank Network, works to shape policy and legislation to end period poverty. She told CityView that nationally, many states made changes from 2021 to 2023 to mitigate period poverty, but new legislation appears to have slowed in 2024. 

“In North Carolina, there were four bills introduced last year, two of which aimed to get rid of the sales tax on period supplies,” Gero said. “Unfortunately, all four of the pieces of legislation didn’t really have any movement.” 

Gero said 20 other states also still put a sales tax on period products, including many Southern states. 

“I think it’s more of a matter of how fiscally conservative the state is,” she said, noting legislators might be concerned about losing revenue from sales tax on period products. 

According to Period Law, a national organization that provides legal help and research to advocates working to change policies on period products, 0.03% of North Carolina’s revenue comes from period products — about $11.1 million.

Gero said some states may also be hesitant to be seen as a pioneer, particularly when it comes to sales tax exemptions for period products. 

“I think one of the things that tends to happen with legislation, especially in the South — everyone looks at what their neighbors are doing and what similar states are doing,” she said. “We’ve seen now that Florida and Texas and Louisiana have all passed the exemption. Now we might see that Arkansas and Mississippi and Alabama might soon follow, but there’s a lot of Southern states that don’t want to be first in anything.” 

The North Carolina legislature will convene for its short session April 24. 

How you can help

Thompson said her school’s pantry is always in need of items, and the pantry remains open even during summer break.

“Come to the school, Monday through Friday, from 9 to 4, to drop off anything that you would like to donate,” she said. “We would greatly appreciate it.” 

The school is also working on an Amazon wishlist, she said. 

“What we need all the time is pretty standard,” Thompson said. “Yesterday, when I did my count, we have 22 students who are either pregnant or parenting of a population of 173. So diapers of all sizes, baby wipes, body wash, deodorant for both men and women … Toilet paper. They get so excited about toilet paper.” 

And, of course, period products. 

“Just anything that you’re led to donate,” she said. “Anything that’s in your house, anything that you can go to Walmart and get, we need.” 

Schaefer-Old said that while the Diaper Bank provides diapers in Cumberland County, it hasn’t found local support for period products yet. 

“We’ve just not had any interest in folks supporting our work there,” she said. “It may just be because they don’t realize that we’re coming in every month and serving families.” 

But Schaefer-Old knows the need is there. 

“We have a waitlist of partners,” she said. “We could provide period products to every single public school in Cumberland County if we had the support to do so.” 

Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@cityviewnc.com or 910-423-6500.

This story was made possible by contributions to CityView News Fund, a 501c3 charitable organization committed to an informed democracy.

Cumberland County, schools, period poverty, periods, menstruation, pantry, Alger B. Wilkins High School