Cotton balls, towels and diapers: Utah girls who can’t afford period products are turning to cheaper alternatives

A group of women rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday, and a lawmaker has agreed to sponsor a bill.

One girl said her parents can’t afford pads or tampons, so every month when her period comes, she sits on a pile of towels and has to stay home from her Salt Lake City school.

Another said she has tried to make do with cotton balls, which are less expensive than period products. But she worries about them leaking while she’s in class in Granite School District; and she quit her sports team because of it.

Some school nurses and teachers talked about how they try to supply extra products for the students who need them. They are paying out of their own pocket, though. And some students are uncomfortable asking for them or don’t know who has them.

To overcome these issues of access, poverty, privacy and stigma, a group of Utah women is now pushing the Legislature to provide free menstrual products in all public K-12 schools and charters here.

“Access to period products is as necessary as toilet paper,” said Emily McCormick, a mom and advocate who is leading the effort called The Period Project. “It’s time to change.”

A crowd of more than 200 women and girls cheered in support Wednesday at a rally at the Utah Capitol. They wore pink shirts and carried posters with statements like, “Period products are not a privilege” and “If men were bleeding monthly, this would’ve been solved already.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 100 people attended Wednesday's rally sponsored by The Period Project to urge Utah legislators to provide free menstrual products in the bathrooms of every public school in Utah, Nov. 17, 2021 at the Capitol.

At one table, they handed out reusable period underwear. At another, moms and daughters signed letters to their lawmakers, pleading: “We need tampons at our schools!” And they all talked openly and honestly about a topic that often is mired in embarrassment or shame.

Their project has also received initial support from some Utah politicians, as well as two majors donors. Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, agreed to sponsor a bill in the upcoming session in January to make the push a reality.

Her measure would set aside funding from the state to pay for period products, such as tampons and pads. Those would be put in dispensers that all students could access for free at every public elementary, junior high and high school in the state.

Lisonbee characterized the effort as a way to allow girls of all incomes to continue to “learn with confidence and dignity” and not be disrupted by their periods. The bill is backed by Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Gov. Spencer Cox.

“There is traction for this,” Henderson said. “I’m really glad that we’re starting to get rid of the stigma around periods. It’s about dang time.”

The effort will be supported by $1 million each from longtime philanthropist Gail Miller’s foundation and the Andrus Family Foundation, led by mother Kristin Andrus. That will cover about half of the expected cost, with the projected total between $3.6 million and $4.8 million.

“We know better,” Andrus said Wednesday, her voice echoing in the rotunda. “We have to do better. I cannot have my girls up here in 10 or 15 years still doing this.”

In late October, after learning about the need for menstrual supplies at a local middle school, Andrus’ organization SisterGoods had donated 47,000 boxes of period products to the Utah Food Bank to be distributed across the state.

That shipment, though, will only last three weeks, McCormick said at an event her organization hosted last week, called “The Period Project Symposium: State of Periods in Utah.” And she also noted that federal food aid, known as food stamps, can’t be used to buy menstrual products because they are not considered a “medical necessity.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Over 100 people attended Wednesday's rally sponsored by The Period Project to urge Utah legislators to provide free menstrual products in the bathrooms of every public school in Utah, Nov. 17, 2021 at the Capitol.

The main push of The Period Project is to assist students in low-income households who may not be able to afford period products — known as period poverty. There were posters with statistics lined up around the Capitol on Wednesday. One read: “1 in 5 girls can’t afford period products.”

Utah has more than 1,200 public K-12 schools, and nearly 350 of them are Title I schools, according to Sheryl Ellsworth, project manager for Utah Youth Leadership Pipeline, an initiative focused on increasing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) representation in state leadership. A Title I designation means at least 35% of a school’s students live in low-income brackets.

When girls can’t afford period products, she said, they often are stuck at home during their menstruation cycle every month. That means missing school, extracurriculars and other opportunities.

Ellsworth called it a serious equity issue that disproportionately impacts those with single parents, those experiencing homelessness and those in refugee communities. “If girls aren’t in school, they aren’t learning,” she said.

Ally Isom, who is running for U.S. Senate, shared her own experience about growing up poor, in a family of eight with a strict $30 budget for groceries and a mom who worked two jobs. She said she got her period in eighth grade, and her family couldn’t afford pads from the store. They had to use their money to prioritize getting food.

Isom said she was one of the girls who tried using toilet paper and cotton balls and regularly missed school because of it. One statistic said that seven out of 10 girls have reported needing to stay home from school because of their periods.

McCormick said that number shows that access to period products can affect anyone who menstruates, extending even beyond poverty levels. Periods can come unexpectedly, when someone doesn’t have a tampon or pad with them. And some girls may feel embarrassed to ask for one at the front desk of their school, and feel they have to go home if they bleed through a makeshift solution or clothing.

Having products freely available and accessible in school restrooms will help all students, as simply as having toilet paper in stalls or paper towels to dry their hands, McCormick added. And it will allow students discretion and privacy, too.

The organization is also pushing for the products to be available for all grade levels, including elementary schools, because girls, on average, start their periods around the age of 12 — or sixth grade. Some start younger, with an estimated 10% to 15% beginning at age 7 — or second grade, organizers said.

Natalie Connolly, a nurse, said she has helped teach maturation programs to fifth and sixth graders and urged lawmakers to normalize talking about period products as “a basic hygiene necessity.”

She said she also has seen girls using cotton balls and even children’s diapers as cheaper alternatives when they can’t afford pads. Using the wrong products, as well as wearing a tampon longer than suggested as a cost-saving measure, puts individuals at higher risk for infections, too.

Organizers also argued that menstrual products should not have a sales tax and should be considered medically necessary like other products, such as Viagra. Bills proposed in the Utah Legislature over the last five years to eliminate the tampon tax never gained traction, though, always stalling in committee.

Legislators did eliminate the sales tax on menstrual products as part of a sweeping 2019 tax reform bill, but the legislation was repealed not long after it was passed. Those at the rally Wednesday booed when that was mentioned.

But legislation similar to what they are proposing now on access to period products in K-12 schools has passed in other states, including Nevada, Colorado, California and Florida. And Utah State University provides free pads and tampons in its restrooms on campus. It is the only institution of higher education in Utah that does that.

For now, though, girls in high school and younger say they are having to make do without or help each other. Charlotte Bean, 14, a student at East High, said that a group of girls there have banded together and designated a locker where they all contribute period products and share the combination so they all have access to it.

But, Bean said: “It would just make a big difference to have these products in the bathroom.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jayne Connolly and her father Jeff Connolly showed support for the cause and Natalie Connolly, R.N., Jayne's mother who spoke during Wednesday's rally sponsored by The Period Project to urge Utah legislators to provide free menstrual products in the bathrooms of every public school in Utah, Nov. 17, 2021 at the Capitol.