Sister Friend packs. Photo courtesy of Tamara Whiting.

Most people talk about it in euphemisms. You hear it in whispers. “It’s that time of the month.” It is one of the subtle yet important expressions of the gender bias that affects young girls and adult women alike. Menstruation is taboo.

For young girls in poverty, the bias is amplified by the fact that many of them cannot afford sanitary products, often forcing them resort to shredding old clothes and rags to take them through the week of their cycle once a month. Many miss school altogether.

Jennifer England, one of our city’s most active advocates for poverty issues, was talking with a teacher during a coat drive in the winter of 2009. “The teacher shared a need that I, and most people, take for granted—access to sufficient hygienic products. The teachers were buying boxes of pads with their own money so girls didn’t have to skip school when they got their period,” England shares. “I still want to cry just thinking about the stress that puts on a middle school or high school girl. Middle school is hard enough without wondering what you are going to do every month when you get your period.”

“It sat with me for several days,” England continues. “I told friends about it. I worried about it. And suddenly I realized, I’m an organizer. All my friends are organizers. We can do something about it.”

A few weeks later, along with collaborator Desiree van Tassel, England launched the first fundraiser for On the Spot, an organization that campaigns to raise funds to provide menstrual products for girls in schools.

On the Spot holds fundraisers twice a year and money raised at the events goes toward purchasing sanitary products that the group donates to area middle schools, high schools and other organizations that work with women and girls. On the Spot has donated to over 60 sites in the region.

This spring, another organization was launched to respond to this need. Sister Friend was founded by Tamara Whiting after she volunteered at Bethlehem Haven—a women’s shelter downtown—and saw that feminine care products are one of the residents’ greatest needs.

Tamara Whiting, right, at Bethlehem Haven. Photo courtesy of Sister Friend.
Tamara Whiting, right, at Bethlehem Haven. Photo courtesy of Sister Friend.

Whiting, along with collaborator Darlene Powell, immediately took action and raised funds to supply Bethlehem Haven with sanitary products. Sister Friend has since grown to provide 160 “Sister Friend kits” to five organizations monthly, including Operation Safety Net which serves our city’s homeless population. Each kit contains enough sanitary products—pads or tampons—for one week.

“Sanitary products are not covered by the food stamp program and to make matters worse, there is a luxury tax levied on them,” Whiting shares. “We provide these kits regularly so the women each organization serves know that they have a reliable place to turn to every month.”

Whiting is looking to expand Sister Friend’s services to cover not only shelters but also schools—which would complement On the Spot’s work—and eventually, respond to requests she had received to bring Sister Friend to other cities.

England plans to increase On the Spot’s coverage to provide for more adult women as well. “No one should have to deal with having their period and not having pads or tampons,” says England. “That seems like a basic human necessity and we are really failing as a society by not meeting that need.”

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.