Canned Peas or Tampons?

Shopping for Feminine Hygiene Products

Caroline Spivack

The average box of tampons costs five dollars. With that money, Elizabeth Chase, a Bronxite on food stamps, could purchase five rolls of toilet paper, or six bars of soap, or put it towards a bag of diapers.

It’s a question she thinks about every time she reaches for a tampon box at the grocery store: Do I buy feminine hygiene products when there are other necessities my family needs? Chase and some 42 million women in this country living in poverty, or on the brink of it, ask the same thing each month.

“It definitely affects how I budget things,” Chase, 48, said in the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry in West Harlem run by the Food Bank for New York City on a recent February afternoon. She shrugged as she packed cans of fruit and boxes of juice into an electric blue Ikea bag. “You gotta prioritize and make do with what you have. Sometimes I use tissue instead,” she said referring to lining her underwear with toilet paper when she can’t afford tampons.

A yearly supply of feminine hygiene products costs upwards of $70 dollars and is not covered by food stamps. But according to UNICEF, the price of poor menstrual health can lead to infections, especially in women who use unwashed rags as an alternative to sanitary pads. In India, it is even linked to high rates of cervical cancer.

Here in New York City, a lack of access to feminine hygiene products is a need that organizations across the city struggle to fill. This is in part because tampons and sanitary pads are rarely donated.

At the West Harlem food pantry, 350 to 400 low-income New Yorkers a day select fresh produce, grains, meats, and canned foods for their families—and essential non-food items such as feminine hygiene products when they are available.

“The challenge is that when we do get them the quantities are so small,” said Camesha Grant, vice president of community connections and reach at the Food Bank for New York City. “Every woman needs this product, but if you have ten boxes, you know, what do you do with that? Meanwhile, we’re serving 500 families, so it’s a challenge. It’s a huge challenge.”

To help bridge that gap, Queens Representative Grace Meng (D) recently introduced a bill that would allow people to pay for feminine hygiene products with their Flexible Spending Accounts, an untaxed account, often referred to as an FSA, where up to $2,550 of a person’s income can be used to purchase certain medical expenses such as prescription medications and bandages.

“It only makes sense to include tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products as well,” said Meng. “We must make these necessary items as affordable as possible, and including feminine hygiene products in an FSA is the most practical approach to making that happen.”

The bill, called the Fund Essential Menstruation Products Act, would include a variety of feminine hygiene products such as tampons, pads, liners, cups, sponges, and other products related to menstrual health.

Meng’s bill is a creative solution to sidestep the so-called “tampon tax,” which treats feminine hygiene products as luxury items. The tax, and efforts to eliminate it, gained national attention after two members of the Californian State Assembly, Cristina Garcia and Ling Ling Chang, introduced a bill in the legislature in January to exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax.

The items are exempt from sales tax in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and in five other states that don’t have sales tax. New York is one of 40 states that taxes menstrual supplies. But Queens City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras (D) is hoping to change that with legislation that will urge the state to eliminate the tax.

Ferreras is also in the process of drafting three bills to make tampons and pads free in shelters, public schools, and prisons across the city, but for now Ferreras is excited that Meng’s legislation continues to bring attention to the issue.

“New York is a known leader in the fight for women’s equality, and the Fund Essential Menstruation Products Act once again positions this state at the forefront of this national issue,” said Ferreras. “I look forward to soon having tampons and pads easily available to women and girls across New York.”