Dry butts don’t just happen, it takes resources for us to be dry and healthy. Essential supplies like diapers, and menstrual products are expensive and are not included in any governmental support programs for low income families. Diaper banks are making a difference but the need outstrips the supply for these products. This story includes the voices of people impacted by and working on this issue and explores potential policy solutions.
Air date: 1/7/2024
Sharon Jones: [00:00:00] It’s about one thing. It’s to keep that baby’s butt dry, clean, healthy. And that’s what it’s all about.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:07] Hello beautiful WPKN and listeners, I’m Isabelle Barbour. I’d like to welcome you to WPKN’s Mic Check, which comes to you on WPKN every Sunday at 5:30 p.m.. Our diverse roster of hosts presents a wide range of topics for discussion, focusing on global, national, and regional issues that affect our local community. Just as the phrase “mic check” mobilizes people to create a human microphone during public demonstrations and protest actions, this weekly program amplifies our community’s many voices and brings them to the airwaves. This show will be posted on WPKN’s archive site for the next two weeks. Go to archive WPKN.org, choose the airdate and click on the show Mic Check and boom! You’ll have access to this recording.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:08] Today’s story begins in a huge space crowded with pallets of lots of stuff. Everything from lamps to diapers, from pool floaties to boxes of menstrual products. Oh, yeah and there’s also the sounds of forklifts and a hairband. Annie Stockton, the Vice President of the Gemma Moran United Way/ Labor Food Center, is going to get us started.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:38] Annie, describe where we are right now.
Annie Stockton: [00:01:41] So we are at the Gemma Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London. So we are a 20,000 square foot food warehouse. We’re here today getting ready for our non-food giveaway. So we have 19,607 pounds of product to distribute to all of our partners.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:05] United Way Partners, are agencies that receive funding through grants. Anyone who has a connection or partnership with the United Way can come to this event. All told, there are about 68 partners and many of them are on their way. Annie connects me to Denise, who’s the inventory coordinator for the Gemma.
Denise Milette: [00:02:28] This is something that we do that no one else does. And it helps a lot of the pantries, the shelters, some of the, um, kids daycare programs. This is really great for them to be able to give their clients something other than food because we have furniture, baby items, paper products, you name it, we get it.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:50] Even though it started to rain, cars were coming into the parking lot and people were getting ready to go.
Annie Stockton: [00:02:55] So we have — I don’t know if you’re — so it looks like we have Safe Futures here. We have New London Public Schools, FHM, which is a program in Groton, New London Area Food Pantry, um, Madonna Place — I don’t know if TVCCA — New London Homeless Hospitality Center, New London Salvation Army. Jersahid would you like to be interviewed for a radio show?
Jersahid Valencia: [00:03:21] Sure– yah. . .
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:22] That would be fantastic. I’m going to cross the line, but I’m not getting in line.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:28] Jersahid Valencia works as the Coordinator for family engagement at the New London Public Schools. We talked about the limitations that come with some of the grants that the district has.
Jersahid Valencia: [00:03:40] We have some grants that we were able to use, but only for those family, uh, going through an emergency in their lives. This gives us more of an open opportunity to use it just to any family and our district. So we are able to use provide them with, with some items like furniture or even diapers. Sometimes, you know, there’s a lot of random stuff here.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:04] It was on point for Jersahid to mention diapers as I’m watching people take boxes of them. These diapers and period products are very popular with this crowd of community serving organizations. I asked Annie about it. Do you see that there are certain products that are more valuable than others?
Annie Stockton: [00:04:24] Um, I think definitely people are coming here for the diapers, for the period products. I was incredibly impressed to see that we had entire pallet full of period products today, because that’s definitely a a high cost item, and it’s something that you have to have. Right. Um, and I think it’s great that we’re able to give that out. I wish that I wish that our country could just give that out for free all the time. Um, but until that happens, I’m glad that we have that here.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:46] I reached out to the Connecticut Diaper Bank and got connected to Jenny Kohl, who serves as the organization’s Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator. I wanted to wrap my head around diaper need and period product need, which is also called period poverty.
Jenny Kohl: [00:05:04] Actually, the National Diaper Bank just released some new data. We know that prior to the pandemic and last time there were some research done on this, we knew it was about 1 in 3 families in the US that were struggling to afford diapers. And now it is. It’s 1 in 2 families. It’s very similar on a national versus in Connecticut. Um, and we know, you know, the need is very much there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:26] Jenny estimates that in Connecticut, this is about 70 to 80,000 kids under four who are living in families, who are under 200% of the poverty level. That’s a lot of kids, but it’s probably an undercount, Jenny explains.
Jenny Kohl: [00:05:45] And we know the majority of those children could probably benefit from services like this. So we’re really only meeting about 10% of the need. And it’s important to recognize, too, that this is something that so many people are struggling with. And they’re really expensive and 200% the federal poverty is a good indicator, but there’s also a lot of families and a lot of people who are making above that and are still struggling.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:07] So we talked diapers, but the Connecticut Diaper Bank also provides period supplies and incontinence supplies. So from the name the Connecticut Diaper Bank seems like the work started in diapers. What caused the work to be expanded to period supplies and adult incontinence supplies?
Jenny Kohl: [00:06:28] We have been doing period distribution sort of intermittently, pretty much our entire our entire history. You know, we were founded in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2020 where we, you know, officially solidified our Beam program, which is our period distribution program. But it’s always been sort of a sense, kind of the inception of the diaper bank, always sort of a goal to get there because the two products, in a lot of ways are so similar, both in material but also in need. And it really came from just knowing that the families we were serving, just from working with them and understanding the need, like if a mother or a caregiver who needs period supplies, you know, if they’re in need of diapers, most likely they’re in need of period supplies too. And we know that, again, you know, most of the time a caretaker is going to put the child ahead of their own basic needs. So. Was really important for us to be able to expand that again, be able to cover more of the lifespan for these families and give them one less thing to worry about.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:07:32] And as it’s true for diapers, a lot of menstruating people are in need of period supplies.
Jenny Kohl: [00:07:38] So in Connecticut, it’s 1 in 8 women between the ages of 12 and 44, so roughly the menstruating age who live below the federal poverty level. And that’s a little bit over 700,000 women. That being said, we know that women is not the only they’re — It’s not the only group of people that menstruate. So but it gives you kind of a rough number just to show how big of a need this is.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:04] The national data on period product need is that two out of five menstruators have trouble getting these products. I asked Jenny about the difference between Connecticut and the nation.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:17] So it sounds like Connecticut is faring slightly better than the rest of the nation in terms of meeting period product needs. Is that fair?
Jenny Kohl: [00:08:29] It’s I think it’s kind of a yes/and kind of question like, yes, Connecticut has passed a lot of more progressive period rate related policies. I think it’s easy in a state like Connecticut where we think things are going really well to get a little bit complacent. That’s still a lot of people who need this sort of support. So it’s not the time to be like, you know, Connecticut is fine. It’s really like, okay, what are the next steps and how can we get there?
Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:56] The Connecticut Diaper Bank works with a broad range of partners to get these essential products in the hands of community members. Some of these partners are state level organizations like the Connecticut Hospital Association, and some are community based, like the Keefe Center in Hamden, Connecticut.
Jenny Kohl: [00:09:17] The way that the Diaper Bank gets its products to families is we work with a network of about 165 different community based organizations. So this is the Connecticut Hospital um Association in their network. This is, you know, mutual aid groups, food banks, schools, kind of wherever there’s an access point. And then they distribute to the families that they serve. And through this sort of very strategic structure, we serve close to 10,000 families. And this is all of those product areas. So we know our biggest program area is infant and toddler period supplies, and then a little bit smaller for the incontinence products. But all of those together it’s about 10,000.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:56] Sharon Jones is the Community Service Coordinator at the Keefe Center.
Sharon Jones: [00:10:01] Sometimes we are blessed enough to have a sorority, a frat, a woman’s group — and they will donate all the diapers to us. We partnership with a lot of the schools in the area Quinnipiac University, Southern Connecticut, Albertus, and the students groups there will sometimes do diaper bag drives for us and we’ll have diapers. That’s the challenge, is to always make sure that the diapers are on hand.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:10:32] Most of the parents that come to the diaper bank also visit the center’s food pantry. Sharon has a deep commitment to this work.
Sharon Jones: [00:10:42] I got on this journey from a previous job when I did home visits, and I went to a young lady’s house a few times, but I finally stopped to ask her the baby. Seems like every time I would go was in this one diaper running around the house because I did home visits, you know, running around the house, happy baby, saggy diaper, you know. I asked why? Because I don’t have any diapers, Miss Sharon. And I gotta have one for tonight. When they go to bed. Ah. So we start hunting for a diaper bank. And this was. Uh, 20 years ago. So this was really before the diaper bank. I’ve bought plenty of diapers for other people’s children because I. You know, there’s no way. Because that baby was a happy baby running in that diaper. But what happens when that baby gets a diaper rash? It’s not a happy baby. Mom’s not a happy mom. Then I notice hmm’hmm. Why are the McDonald’s napkins? I can’t buy diapers and pads, so I used the McDonald’s napkins for my pad. When I have my period. Aiaaaa!
Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:03] Doctor Osei is the Director of Health Equity and Community Engagement for the Connecticut Hospital Association. Doctor Osei knows all too well what happens when the littles are kept too long in dirty diapers.
Dr. Osei: [00:12:17] When a kid is in a diaper too long, they’re not dry. Right? So kids are going to wet themselves. They’re going to sell themselves, and if they are not changed often cleaned properly, they can develop what we call diaper rash more commonly. And depending on how often that happens, and bacteria that can lay dormant because you’re not being cleaned so often, what’s going to happen is that can spiral into an admission in a hospital, and that’s what we want to prevent.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:54] It’s also important to note that there are financial consequences for families that do not have enough diapers.
Dr. Osei: [00:13:03] It really affects the entire family structure. When families don’t have access to both diapers, period supplies, incontinence products, kind of all of those things. But to really focus on the infant and toddler diapers, because we have a lot of research around that, we know that, you know, one, there’s an economic impact. If families don’t have access to diapers, they can’t put their kid in childcare because most childcare facilities require either a week or a month’s worth of diapers. And if that’s the case, you know you’re missing out on income opportunities. You’re having to take days off from work. The data, based on our our most recent economic analysis report, families that that we work with that don’t have access to diapers are missing out on about $6,000 of income each year.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:50] And like most health issues, there are avoidable differences in who is impacted by a lack of access to diapers and period products. While things mostly break down along economic lines and gender lines, with poor women being disproportionately impacted, there are also some cultural and racial disparities.
Jenny Kohl: [00:14:15] And then just the data that we collect, you know, it’s important for us to sort of understand the communities that we’re serving. We know that it’s a lot of low income folks, but also tied to different racial disparities. And communities of color are seeing higher rates of diaper need, and women of color are having a harder time accessing period supplies. And that is both directly tied to the fact that they’re expensive. But then a lot of other systemic racism pieces. So those are really important pieces to think about, especially when you’re trying to come up with a solution. It’s like we need to go directly to the communities that we’re serving and figure out what would actually help.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:53] Through Sharon, I got to meet Monique. Monique has strong ties not only to the Keefe Center, but also to the building itself.
Monique: [00:15:03] Um, I actually used to attend here back in the day with cheerleading practice, but as I’ve gotten older, Sharon, Anne, and multiple other people have helped me not only with the diaper bank, but the food bank as well. And then of course all their signs and stuff for job opportunities.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:21] Monique spoke with me about the challenges of getting diapers.
Monique: [00:15:25] To be here and to be able to come here at least once a month. That gives me a week or two leeway, so then I can catch up and say, oh, now I’m in size three diapers. So now I know I have this for a couple of weeks, but now I can go buy a box, and then when I get paid, I’ll be able to come back here and then I can go get the next box. Instead of being behind, I’m able to catch up.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:49] Part of what I’m hearing as you speak is the level of planning that you have to do to make sure that your kiddos are taken care of.
Monique: [00:15:58] Absolutely. It’s, um, between appointments and school and extra activities, if they’re able to be a part of them, as well as my work schedule and, you know, working with my other colleagues to like, if my kids are sick, having to be out, you know, going on maternity leave like it is a lot of planning. And when you don’t plan, that’s when things come up. And there’s a lot of deadlines, you know, being on state assistance. You have to meet certain deadlines. You have to get paperwork from your job. You have to, you know, get paperwork from your landlords like you have to you have to be very organized. And it’s a mental load for sure.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:37] Doctor Osei shared that the impact of diaper need on new parents, particularly mothers, is huge.
Dr. Osei: [00:16:45] Diaper need has been documented to be the number one predictor of postpartum depressive symptoms, above and beyond food insecurity. Uh, in a sample of low income mothers in Connecticut. And this is out of a study that was done, um, by the Connecticut Center of Economic Analysis. Typically, we are concerned about one year postpartum period. We want to pay close attention to their needs. We want to understand what we can do to support their healing. And now that we understand from existing research right here in Connecticut. And so to the extent that we are able to screen for diaper need, when families are coming through, our hospitals, identify their need, connect them to resources, support their family by providing the diapers, then we think we are getting getting a little bit ahead of addressing one of the key stresses of taking care of their newborn.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:17:58] Back in the room with Sharon, Jenny, and Monique. Things were getting heavy, and I’ve learned that if you put several women in a room to talk about bodily functions, well, things will get real.
Monique: [00:18:12] You know, abortion laws and things like that, to take that away, to take that choice away from somebody. It’s not right that you don’t know why someone’s choosing the choice that they are, whether they have that baby or not to have that baby. Both are difficult roads. And I think men especially need to listen as well, because physically they’re never going to be able to comprehend what we go through, and not just pregnancy and birth. It’s the aftermath as well. I think everybody needs to look at that more and have more compassion and sympathy — the shame and the stigma around it, you know what I mean? It shouldn’t be there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:50] Well said. If we could just take care of the patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy, we would just be. Golden.
Sharon Jones: [00:18:57] (Laughing) Yes. Yes, that was.That was it in nutshell.
Monique: [00:19:04] (Laughing)
Jenny Kohl: [00:19:04] (Laughing) Yeah. Yup. We’re good.
Sharon Jones: [00:19:06] That knocked my glasses off.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:19:09] Most of the Connecticut Hospital Association’s 90 plus members worked with the Connecticut Diaper Bank in some form or fashion. During the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 as more and more people struggled to get essentials. The Connecticut Hospital Association formalized an association level partnership with the Connecticut Diaper Bank. This program is called Diaper Connections.
Dr. Osei: [00:19:38] We supported that opportunity to really bring our members together through the partnership with the diaper Bank, and try to figure out how distribution of diapers to families in the state of Connecticut identified with the need could work through hospitals and the community organizations they work with.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:20:01] Sharon talked to me about getting donations of diapers and pads, and it reminded me of things at the Gemma Moran United Way/ Labor Food Center, and I wondered if there was a more systematic way that people could get these essentials.
Jenny Kohl: [00:20:19] Really the idea for this particular bill started back in, you know, later 2019, 2020. A group of students in Connecticut were really interested in sort of pursuing this idea that all public schools should have free and accessible period supplies. And obviously the pandemic came up. Session was shorten. That whole concept was sort of squashed. But once everything got a little bit back to normal, Representative Kate Farrar, who is a state representative from West Hartford in Connecticut, was again working with a lot of the students, kind of talking about what their needs looked like. And that’s sort of where the idea for this particular bill came from. But yeah, essentially what was passed is now that all public schools in Connecticut, all publicly funded state colleges and universities, jails and prisons and emergency shelters all now have to require free and accessible period supplies in all women’s bathroom, one men’s bathroom and all — all gender bathrooms, which is great. And you know, we’re really proud of being part of getting this passed. And it’s a huge thing in Connecticut. It’s one of the first in the country to pass a bill like this. It’s great. It’s a really awesome start. But we know that a lot of people, a lot of menstruators are not going to those particular places. So it’s important for us, at least at the diaper bank, to continue to talk about other ways that we can continue to, you know, increase the just awareness around the need, but also looking at policies that would really ensure that menstruators and women and everybody that needs these products have access where they need it, which is in a bathroom, not, you know, some hallway nurse’s office or something like that.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:21:55] Representative Jillian Gilchrest, also from West Hartford, chairs an endometriosis workgroup. While there is much more to endometriosis than periods, the two issues do connect.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest: [00:22:08] The connection between endometriosis and period supply advocacy is many fold. The first is the stigma associated with periods. And I do feel like we are, you know, turning the curve, um, as a state and as a country with with period stigma. But for so long there has been such stigma. So women don’t speak about their period. Or if it is brought up, it’s it’s shamed. And that has a consequence on those with endometriosis because it has always been seen as well. You just have a painful period like stop talking about it. And there’s such stigma of like, you know, during your time of the month, like a woman’s going to be moody, right, and emotional. And so it really stigmatizes women with endometriosis from speaking out about the extreme pain they’re having, or that their period is different than others because they’re just shut down. And so they really don’t even get an opportunity to share what they’re going through. So that’s the the first big piece that I think the reason we are still so far behind on talking about and addressing a disease that impacts 1 in 10 individuals with a uterus is because there’s just such shame and stigma around talking about your period. And then the other piece is access to supplies. So for those who, um, and I’ll use suffer suffer with endometriosis, they tend to have much heavier periods. And so they’re going through supplies at a much faster pace than others. And so if already the cost is a significant barrier for someone, if you then add the fact that they are living with endometriosis, they could be going through two times as much, three times as much product each month as individuals with a typical period.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:01] The issue of period stigma is real.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest: [00:24:04] I’m told often by my older female colleagues that it just wasn’t something you talked about. And so when we are thinking about stigma and how culture is changing, you know, the young people, they don’t even of course they’re going to talk about it. Why wouldn’t they talk about it? Their way of looking at it as these are products very similar to toilet paper, like you just need to use these these products is really helping to turn the curve.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:24:30] Regarding access to diapers — one policy solution is to cover diapers under Medicaid. Other states, including Delaware and Tennessee, are looking at this issue, too. Representative Gilchrest has led a task force to examine how this could happen in Connecticut.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest: [00:24:47] I formed the Health related Social Needs Working Group with a focus on diapers, housing and food. After our last legislative session ended and we met over the course of four months to really better understand the need that’s out there and what’s going on in other states, and how Connecticut could potentially use an 1115 waiver to have Medicaid cover these services.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:25:17] Just a quick note — CMS is the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and this is a federal agency that provides health coverage through Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as the Health Insurance Marketplace. 1115 waivers are basically an application to CMS for using Medicaid dollars differently to support basic needs that are associated with good health outcomes, and that can sometimes result in a federal match of state dollars.
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest: [00:25:51] There’s — there’re states across the country have been using 1115 waivers for, in particular, housing and food, because CMS at the federal level really has made an effort to address what are sometimes called social determinants of health or called health related social needs. Now, when it comes to diapers, no state has been granted an 1115 waiver yet. So what we did learn in the working group is that Connecticut is leading the way with this work, which is a positive, but also a negative, because we really would be one of the first to be pushing on CMS to address diapers as a health related social need.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:26:35] Are we likely to see policy concepts around diapers and around period products in the upcoming session?
Rep. Jillian Gilchrest: [00:26:43] Yes, we will see some proposals when it comes to period products. Connecticut again has led the way. And so we did the pink tax years ago here in the state. And we have required now that all public schools k through college and shelters and in the criminal justice system have to have access to feminine hygiene products. But what we’re looking to do this legislative session is introduce a proposal that would incorporate menstrual health education K through 12 into the health curriculum. And then when it comes to diapers, we are going to pursue the 1115 waiver, if only to continue the conversation at this point and see where we can go with it and how narrowly focused we have to to be to start, you know, in order to get Medicaid to cover these products and then separate from legislation, we will be pursuing partnerships with other states to see how we can effectively advocate through CMS for them to get on board to cover diapers through Medicaid.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:27:48] If you care about these issues, put your finger on the scale and let your state representatives and senators know. These are our friends, families, and neighbors. The products they need are essential. That’s our time. I’d like to thank everyone who generously shared time and wisdom with me, both on and off the mic. Special thanks to Annie Stockton and the whole team at the Gemma Moran United Way/ Labor Food Center. To Jenny Kohl at the Connecticut Diaper Bank, who was my copilot and co-conspirator on this adventure. To Sharon Jones and Monique at the Keefe Center. To Dr. Osei. and the Connecticut Hospital Association, and to Representative Gilchrest, who fit me into her incredibly busy schedule. That’s all for now. See you next time. Thanks.