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Free menstrual products combat period poverty at local colleges

High costs of living, coupled with a lack of government aid for menstrual products, have exacerbated period poverty in recent years.

MassBay Community College staff picked up period products from the Dignity Matters warehouse, in Framingham, to restock the bathrooms on their campuses.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Three children, two jobs, and the pursuit of one associate’s degree. That’s what Massachusetts Bay Community College student Jennifer Rahall juggles every day. With so many expenses in the mix, getting her period has always posed yet another costly burden.

She was spending around $40 a month on menstrual products during the height of the pandemic, and it didn’t help that supply chain disruptions were driving prices up on other necessities like food and toiletries. For students like Rahall, the start of every semester comes with a dreaded question: buy textbooks or tampons?

“There was a couple times where I only had a tampon or two left, or maybe some panty liners for a whole week,” she said, “which was hard because I didn’t know how I was going to get through the week, or when the next paycheck would be coming in to buy a new box.”

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More than 40 percent of menstruators have struggled to purchase period products at some point in their lives, according to a recent study by Kotex, and that number has risen 35 percent since 2018.

But a new partnership between MassBay and Framingham-based nonprofit Dignity Matters, which supplies free menstrual products to people who need them, aims to pull students out of period poverty.

Since the beginning of the semester this fall, anyone taking in-person classes has been able to access free pads and tampons from any restroom on each of MassBay’s three campuses, while remote students can schedule a time to pick up their own supply of products from campus.

Marybeth Fletcher, the college’s case manager and resource specialist, visits Dignity Matters’ warehouse in Framingham every two months to replenish the supply, distributing enough products for 105 students each round. She said Dignity Matters is committed to providing more, which she expects will be necessary once the school returns to a fully in-person experience next semester.

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“It’s not cheap living in Massachusetts. We have a lot of students that have returned to school after having families,” Fletcher said. “One in five first-generation students experience period poverty, and 20 percent of our students are first generation. So this really hits hard at MassBay.”

While government programs often spotlight other widespread issues like food insecurity, period products are covered by neither food stamps nor financial aid — and remain some of the most-requested, yet least-donated, items at food banks and homeless shelters.

Dignity Matters’ research and experience show that college students make up the fastest-growing group of people experiencing homelessness and poverty, according to executive director Kate Sanetra-Butler. That’s why the organization began rolling out support last year to local colleges, such as Framingham State University and Northern Essex Community College, which both have similar programs.

“If you are a college student experiencing homelessness and you are home- and food-insecure, you are also hygiene-insecure,” Sanetra-Butler said. “It goes hand in hand.”

She said although Dignity Matters will continue to service its partners for as long as they’re in need of supplies, period poverty is too big — too systemic — of an issue to tackle in a comprehensive way solely through private charities.

“I truly believe that just like toilet paper, menstrual care should be available at bathrooms everywhere,” Sanetra-Butler said. “It’s a hygiene issue if you don’t have access to menstrual care.”

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At MassBay, Dean of Students Elizabeth Blumberg hopes stocking free menstrual products in bathrooms will minimize the shame often felt by people struggling with poverty — especially when it relates to period hygiene, which often remains stigmatized.

Blumberg, who also serves as the college’s vice president of student development, said this initiative would empower students by eliminating any concern about having to visit a school nurse or fill out paperwork before accessing what they need. And ultimately, she said, it represents a long-term investment in more than just their comfort.

“When you imagine a student sitting in a classroom wondering where they’re going to get menstrual products, they’re not able to really concentrate. They’re thinking about, ‘I just got my period. ‘What am I going to do?’” Blumberg said. “So wherever we can remove the barriers, the more likely we are to have our students be successful. And that’s ultimately why we’re here.”


Angela Yang can be reached at angela.yang@globe.com.