Changes flow on campus: YSU addresses period poverty

by C. Aileen Blaine

With the recent remodeling of the restrooms in and around Youngstown State University’s Kilcawley Center, students may have noticed new additions to the walls of women’s, unisex and select men’s rooms: menstrual product dispensers.

The dispensers are an attempt to address the need for menstrual hygiene products on campus. With a student population that’s 55% female according to 2020 data released by the university, the chance of individuals experiencing what’s known as “period poverty” is great.

But the problem is not as much due to a lack of supplies on campus as it is a lack of human resources.

Student Government Association members are taking on a few initiatives to tackle the growing need for these hygiene products in areas of high student traffic, such as Kilcawley Center. One of these measures includes the installation of the new dispensers in the remodeled restrooms.

SGA President Nicholas Koupiaris and executive vice president Gianna Battaglia are the current faces behind the free-product dispensers. The repositories are paid for with leftover funds from SGA and are provided by Aunt Flow, a company working to address menstruating individuals’ needs across the country.

“When we were first putting these in, we didn’t know exactly how students would react, if they would be very popular or not,” Koupiaris said.

Office of Student Experience vice president Joy Polkabla Byers said there have been a variety of measures attempted over the past 17 years.

“Student Government did a great job in the last couple years gathering information about this Aunt Flow program and figuring out how we could do this for students at no cost,” Polkabla Byers said. “Evolution-wise, we’ve really seen growth, it’s just come in different waves across campus.”

Former SGA administrations pushed for the 50-cent tampons and liners to be included in the food-and-drink vending machines in buildings across campus, especially after a contract with the metal restroom dispenser company Tamabrands ended a few years ago.

The recently installed Aunt Flow dispensers in Kilcawley Center are meant to replace the old Tamabrand machines after the contract ended several years ago. Photo by C. Aileen Blaine/YO Magazine.

The Aunt Flow machines are currently stocked under a campus janitorial agreement, but future discussions are needed to determine who will continue to restock supplies.

“The problem we had was that before — under a previous vending contract — there were dispensers campus-wide, and when that contract ended, so did the support of those dispensers,” John Young, executive director of auxiliary services, said. “Sustainability is a big concern — making sure this is something we’ll continue to support as an initiative.”

Battaglia said expanding the product availability relies not just on supplies and human resources, but also on money.

“As we keep installing these in different buildings and departments, we also have to keep in mind what our budget entails,” she said. “Not only does that entail the cost of the dispenser and putting them in the bathrooms, but also how much money we have to restock.”

According to 2019 data compiled by the Alliance for Period Supplies, 1 in 5 low-income women report missing work, school or similar commitments due to their lack of access to period supplies. Though menstrual products are not taxed as luxury items in Ohio, many menstruating individuals still find covering the cost for products difficult.

For those living in student housing, the Kilcawley Center dispensers only go so far. Within the last two years, the CVS Pharmacy on Fifth Avenue closed, leaving many on-campus residents without nearby access to products beyond those available in dorms, the campus Barnes & Noble and the vending machines in buildings locked overnight and on weekends. This makes it all the more difficult for those in and around campus to get what they need if they lack transportation.

For now, there’s another campus resource for menstruating individuals: the Penguin Pantry.

The pantry, while also a resource for students who may be food insecure, also offers a variety of hygiene and toiletry products, including pads and tampons. Any student is able to use the pantry; they’re only asked to fill out an online form for item requests under a first name and last name initial, which can reduce the embarrassment or anxiety some students may feel.

The pantry offers sanitary wipes, tampons, pads and liners that can be picked up at a time and date of the student’s choice. They can send someone else to pick up the order if they’re nervous or embarrassed.

Though the pantry has an abundance of supplies, a shortage of staff to work at the pantry’s physical location in Kilcawley Center limits the hours, which are as follows:

  • Monday: 11 a.m.–1:30 p.m., 2–4 p.m.
  • Tuesday: 1–4 p.m.
  • Wednesday: 10 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
  • Thursday: 12–4 p.m.
  • Friday: 11 a.m.–1:30 p.m.

The Penguin Pantry in Kilcawley Center has a surplus of menstrual hygiene products free and available to any YSU student, but its limited operating hours are due to a lack of human resources to work the station. Photo by C. Aileen Blaine/YO Magazine.

“Everywhere’s hiring right now, so it’s kind of difficult to hire a pantry worker right now,” Cline said. “But we’re in the final stages of hiring somebody, which will open up those hours that the pantry can be open.”

Cline observed that the pantry doesn’t get as much use as it could, though factors such as time constraints, embarrassment or lack of awareness may exist.

“It’s an asset to students that they haven’t really seen and utilized, and it’s something that we’re really trying to get up off the ground,” Cline said. “It’s not just canned goods — it’s feminine hygiene products and personal hygiene products in general.”

According to a 2021 study led by George Mason University’s College of Health and Human services, individuals who experience period poverty every month are more likely to experience moderate or severe depression symptoms than their counterparts. The study looked at data collected from more than 470 women enrolled in undergraduate programs. It found that when many young women can’t afford menstrual hygiene products to meet monthly needs, their mental well-being may be impacted.

Poor menstrual hygiene can also impact physical health. It comes with an increased risk for moderate symptoms such as dermatitis to more severe conditions, including urinary tract infections, reproductive issues and fungal infections, as mentioned in a 2018 study led by Dr. Anne Sebert Kuhlmann of St. Louis University.

Efforts to end period poverty aren’t just limited to YSU.  Several major cities across the U.S., such as Boston, have begun providing free products in their public middle and high schools, and homeless shelters and prisons in New York City are also joining the call for action.

In 2020, Ohio Senate Bill 26 went into effect, meaning the “pink tax” on menstrual hygiene products was dropped on the basis of discrimination against women. At YSU, SGA plans to expand the Aunt Flow dispensers to restrooms across campus, such as Maag Library and other high-traffic areas. The timeline has yet to be determined, according to Koupiaris.

“We would hope this initiative is as important to the next SGA administration as it is to us,” Battaglia said. “We’ve heard so much positive feedback on so many different platforms from students, and I hope that is enough for them to want to keep it going.”