“Free pads and tampons!”

It is a sunny Thursday at South Philadelphia High School, and our table near the exit is piled with 250 paper bags of menstrual products. Families take a few as they leave the meal site, set up to help hungry families during the coronavirus pandemic. Within two hours, the bags are gone.

We see many looks of relief. “Thank God,” one woman tells us. “These things are expensive.”

She’s right: Having a period is expensive. So expensive, in fact, that the difficulty of affording menstrual hygiene products even has its own term: period poverty. A 2019 study of American cities found that two-thirds of low-income women did not have the resources to buy menstrual products at some point within the last year. (This study did not include transgender men or nonbinary people.) Period products are not covered by Medicaid, SNAP (commonly known as food stamps), or WIC.

In Philadelphia, 81% of students in public schools live in poverty. Many students rely on products supplied by their nurses, but these resources are at times insufficient. Some students even take to using socks and other makeshift materials as pads. With schools closed, and the economic effects of the coronavirus disproportionately impacting lower-income communities, where does that leave these students?

The teenage-run Menstrual Equity Project is attempting to help fill that gap.

Broke in Philly.
Broke in Philly.

Sofia Pejcic, our fellow classmate at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, began the project after realizing that closing schools also meant cutting off access to menstrual products for many students. If condoms are free for students in Philadelphia, then why aren’t pads and tampons as well?

In partnership with Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, Pejcic began by hand-packing and distributing 200 bags of menstrual products at Northeast High School, where the district was distributing meal boxes. Each kit came with six pads and two tampons, enough to support, or at least supplement, one menstrual cycle. Within four weeks, she had recruited 12 volunteers — including ourselves — to distribute 2,700 kits of products across the city.

But the 2,700 individuals we serviced were just a drop in the bucket. With even more district meal sites opening this June, the Menstrual Equity Project plans to continue distributing products throughout the summer.

Some of our products have been donated by Period, an international youth-led nonprofit with similar ambitions in the fight against period poverty. But most of the funding for the project has come from its crowdsourced campaign on GoFundMe.

The gratitude we received at the meal sites wasn’t just heartwarming — it also made us angry. For decades, activists have challenged their state legislatures to take action toward menstrual equity. And even when states express support for progressive menstrual hygiene legislation, they move at a pace that avoids any real system-wide change.

Our country’s clumsy response to COVID-19 has exacerbated period poverty, magnifying the inaction of our lawmakers, and the burden it imposes on our communities, placing pads and tampons at the expense of groceries or rent. Menstrual products are necessary products, and they need to be treated as such.

Students deserve schools with the resources to care for their health and safety. We need a future where the Philadelphia School District, not solely nonprofits or a group of high school students, takes on that responsibility.

Lola Milder and Lucy Duckworth are rising seniors at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, where they report for their school newspaper, Voices.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.