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Three Virginia teenagers start a “period pantry” for free pads and tampons > Virginia

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When Ariyanna Ghala, 14, went shopping with her mother, she realized how expensive a box of pads was and thought there was something she could do to help people who couldn’t afford one.

The teenager, from Vienna, Virginia, spoke to her friends Ramsey Warner and Isabel Buescher, both 14, and the three got to work. They investigated the problem and learned how many states still tax these products. They heard about “period poverty” – unequal access to menstrual hygiene. They read stories about girls missing school because they lack pads and tampons, and they heard about adults who can’t afford these essential products.

If people need pads and tampons, Ghala and her friends figured they could find a way to get them.

In September, they opened their recreational pantry in front of a church in Vienna, filling the two-foot-wide, one-foot-deep, and 2.5-foot-tall wooden container they built with donated pads and tampons.

“We’re girls and we totally understand that. It’s frankly awful that people wouldn’t have that [period products]’ Ghala said. “This is so important, so vital.”

The girls, all students at James Madison High School, are part of a growing chorus of advocates calling for menstrual equality, said Laura Strausfeld, founder and executive director of Period Law.

Advocates like Strausfeld have used lawsuits and public awareness campaigns to persuade policymakers to lower sales taxes on these items and make them available in schools, prisons, shelters, and public spaces. They have long pushed to remove all stigma surrounding periods and increase the availability of pads, tampons and other products needed for basic hygiene, particularly for those who are poorly paid or otherwise unable to access such care .

“It’s reaching a tipping point,” Strausfeld said, adding it’s encouraging to see young people joining the movement. “They see a need and aren’t afraid to talk about their period.”

Scotland became the first nation to offer menstrual products in public spaces, including community centres, pharmacies and youth clubs, in August after legislation was originally approved by lawmakers in 2020. New Zealand began offering free menstrual products to schools across the country in 2021.

In the United States, 18 states and Washington, DC have passed laws ensuring students have access to free period products at school; More than 20 states levy sales taxes on period products, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies advocacy group. The Justice Department agreed in 2017 to provide free menstrual products to incarcerated women.

Jennifer Gaines, the program director for the Alliance for Period Supplies, a program of the National Diaper Bank Network, said in a “perfect world” period products would be available “everywhere,” similar to the expectation in this country for toilet paper to be provided in restrooms.

During the pandemic, Congress recognized the importance of menstrual products, including provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that allowed people to buy menstrual products with pre-tax dollars from health savings and flexible spending accounts.

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However, period products cannot be purchased under benefit programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. And prices for tampons and pads also rose during a tampon shortage this year, weighing on shoppers during historic inflation already driving up the cost of gas, groceries and other essentials.

“When your period comes and you need a pad or tampon, I’m so encouraged that kids like this are thinking about it,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, executive director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at New York University School of Law and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity. “And to ensure that this is not a need that goes unmet for people in these dire circumstances.”

The Vienna-era pantry, located outside the Emmaus United Church of Christ on Maple Avenue and adjacent to a pantry, has been stocked for months. The teens have stocked the pantry with donations, and others appear to be adding produce of their own as well. The girls hope that support continues, said Heather Buescher, Isabel’s mother.

The pantry was a project for her Girl Scout Troop 6833 and earned the girls the Silver Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout Cadette can receive, according to Kelli Naughton, the troop’s adult leader. Requirements include working 50 hours on a project that will have a lasting impact on the community.

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“We already knew these products were expensive, but we were kind of taught that it just was,” Ramsey said. “When you start thinking that other people can’t have that ‘that’s the way it is’ mindset because they can’t afford it, that’s really unfair.”

The teens ponder how to keep the pantry running, including considering turning that effort into a nonprofit organization.

“It makes me feel good that we’ve been able to help people,” Isabel said.

When furnishing the pantry, the girls painted the wood pink and decorated it with a quote from Helen Keller that captures the role they hope the pantry will play in their community: ÔÇťAlone we can do so little, together we can do so much. “

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