Nearly 50% of Low-Income Women May Be Skipping Meals To Pay for This Basic Need

Updated: Mar. 07, 2023

If your period crept up and you had no supplies, one young woman-led organization is working to change that.

Pretty much everything is more expensive than it was a few years ago. But, products that address basic human needs like keeping us clean and healthy are basic rights we should have access to…right? Actually, maybe not.

Claire Coder is the founder and CEO of Aunt Flow, an organization that aims to close the gap to accessible menstruation products…and it’s not just about eliminating inconvenience and embarrassment. Sixty-four percent of women have had to leave work in order to go get products, she says, “and we know that three out of five students in the US cannot afford period products.” (That’s up from one in five in 2019.) In fact, 84% of students say they’ve either missed class or know someone who missed class because they didn’t have access to period products.

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest chatted with Coder to learn more about this under-addressed issue that affects at least 25% of Americans, how her organization is increasing access to period products, and how advocating for access to period products can make you a warrior for women’s rights.

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The importance of improving period product access

Coder tells the story that seven years ago, she got her period in public and dashed to the restroom to find a coin-operated tampon and pad dispenser (of which only 8% work, according to what a sample of women reported to Free the Tampon). “In that moment, I thought: If toilet paper is offered for free, why aren’t period products? And who carries quarters?

From that moment, Coder set out to work toward a world where no one has to worry about getting their period in public—period. This mission isn’t just about overcoming the inconvenience of finding spare change or unstocked dispensers. Aunt Flow is also tackling other major obstacles to period product access: Period stigma and period poverty.

“I would define period stigma as that action we take when we still hide a period product up our sleeve when we go to the bathroom,” she explains. And this lingering stigma obstructs womens’ ability to ask for what they need. “Menstruation is a natural part of life,” she says. When we go to the bathroom, no one’s stressing about peeing or pooping because they expect there to be necessities like toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, she explains. “I want that experience to be the same for people on their period.”

Then there’s the financial burden. The average woman spends about $20 on period products per cycle—totaling an average of $18,000 over her menstruating years. Inflation is taking this toll even higher, with Bloomberg reporting that the cost of tampons jumped nearly 10% last year. “Period products aren’t covered by WIC or SNAP, which makes it really challenging and expensive to get access to these basic necessities—medical devices—for the 16 million women in the US living at or below the poverty line,” Coder says. Research from 2019 published in Obstetrics & Gynecology lays the struggle out clearly: At some point in the previous year, two-thirds of low-income women could not afford period products, and half said they had to choose between buying food or period products.

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How Aunt Flow is bridging the access gap

Fast-forward seven years since Coder’s a-ha! moment, and Aunt Flow now has a patented free-vend tampon and pad dispensing system with 100% organic period products stocked in over 23,000 bathrooms across the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom. “Our model is simple,” Coder says. “We support advocates in saying ‘This is important to me,’ and then we help the facility sustainably implement a program with dispensers that are really easy to install, maintain, clean, and reload.” From there, Aunt Flow sets up a recurring fulfillment schedule based on a building’s expected usage, “and they’re rocking and rolling.”

“We’re proud to have this program implemented in every school in the state of Utah, at Google, Netflix, Twitter, at every Apple retail store across the US and Canada—and so many more bathrooms,” she says. And it’s just the beginning. Based on Aunt Flow’s mapping, there are more than 10 million female commercial bathrooms in the US (not including gender-neutral restrooms). “We’re at 23,000—so we have a long way to go to get where we want to be.” Still, until this goal of product access for every menstruator is reached, Aunt Flow is committed to alleviating period poverty by donating one period product for every 10 sold, which amounted to more than 1,645,500 in 2022 alone.

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Improve period product access for menstruators in your life

“When I started the company, there was no legislation in the US requiring schools or any buildings to offer period products,” Coder says. “Now, there are over 20 states that have some flavor of legislation.” Still, this path toward total period product access in 10 million-plus bathrooms is a steep one, which is why Coder says the way to make change occur—and drop period stigma—is to encourage everyone to join the conversation.

Advocacy is the first step, and Aunt Flow provides resources for people to start a conversation with their office manager, school administrator, or whoever’s in charge of wherever you expect period products to be available. And they make it simple with customizable email templates for students and employees. “We make sure that people are equipped with responses to the most common ‘quote-unquote’ objections, too,” she says.

Coder emphasizes that another important tactic is offering people the encouragement and space to say that period product access is important to them. For instance, men (who Aunt Flow affectionally call their Flow Bros) can support their female colleagues and fellow students by asking: ‘Hey, I heard about free period products in bathrooms, is that something that we offer?’ That simple question can not only make women feel more comfortable self-advocating for their basic biological needs—but also really spark the conversation that inspires an organization to implement free period products, she says.

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