SCHENECTADY – The Schenectady Menstrual Health Coalition is working to combat “period poverty” by increasing access to hygiene products.
Period poverty, a term not often talked about, refers to not having access to period products like pads or tampons. SMHC promotes the health of menstruating people in the area by providing free menstrual health products.
Brynn Watkins and Claire Jennings are New York State Public Health Corps fellows working with Schenectady County Public Health, and Cornell Cooperative of Schenectady, who created SMHC.
Watkins was doing work around STI prevention, and part of that work was delivering free condoms to local organizations. She explained that she would make phone calls to see who was interested in free condoms. One of the organizations she called was Mohawk Opportunities, who turned down the offer, but asked if she could connect them to free menstrual hygiene products.
“I said, ‘let me look into that,’ but there wasn’t anywhere that I could find that I could connect them to, at least with my basic research and asking around,” Watkins said. “So we decided to start it ourselves.”
Watkins and Jennings applied for a grant from an organization called, The Pad Project, and received a $2,900 grant in June 2022. SMHC has also received funding from Target and CVS and a donation from Market 32 for 144 boxes of assorted pads and tampons.
“We obviously knew there was a need,” Watkins said. “So we started our initiative by bringing tampons and pads to these organizations who are assisting underserved populations, like domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, substance abuse centers.”
Watkins and Jennings installed their second period pantry in Schenectady on Albany Street earlier this month. A period pantry is a small, weather-protected box stocked with a variety of free menstrual products for anyone in need. They work similar to a Little Food Pantry where anyone is welcome to take what they need.
“And we have a third box, we hope to put that in another area in Schenectady with a similar need,” Jennings said. “We’re accessing the best place to put it right now.”
The need for menstrual products is something that a lot of people do not necessarily think about, Jennings explained.
“Just by reaching out to organizations, we’ve given out items to nine or 10 different organizations,” she said. “And they need it, they’re very accepting of them.”
People who are low-income have to be careful what they spend their money on, so they can afford their basic necessities like food or housing, Watkins said.
“Something that comes up again and again in poverty research is that people who menstruate have to decide, ‘do I get a box of tampons for myself? Or do I get dinner for my family?’” Watkins said. “One in four menstruating people struggle at some point to purchase menstrual supplies for themselves. And in general, they’re expensive.”
People try to control their period, Watkins said. She explained how some people who can not afford products may resort to using rags, tissues, or toilet paper, which all can be unsafe. They may also try to use the limited supply of products they do have for longer than they are intended to safely be used.
“We know with things like tampons, keeping them in for an extended period of time is really bad. It can cause things like Toxic Shock Syndrome,” Watkins said. “Using anything unhygienic, like rags or toilet paper, and they aren’t sanitary, that can cause stuff like genital infections, UTIs. It’s harmful to people’s health.”
Schenectady Menstrual Health Coalition will be starting educational programming in January. They will be educating girls through Girls, Inc., and other organizations about periods, the menstrual cycle and working on destigmatizing it.
“People don’t openly talk about the fact that they’re experiencing this totally normal bodily function,” Watkins said. “No one’s going to hide the fact that they have a cold, [but] for some reason periods are so taboo.”