RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Every month, approximately one in four people who menstruate can't afford enough products to meet their needs. One in five menstruators skip work or school because they don't have enough supplies.
Period poverty is not a new issue. Layla Saliba, a recent graduate of North Carolina State University, was working multiple jobs, along with her full course load to keep up with medical bills after she was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis, an autoimmune disorder that causes painful periods.
"I was like, OK. I'm a full time student, I'm working several jobs and, like, I still can't make ends meet. Something has to give here," Saliba said.
She worked with We Bleed Red, a student organization fighting to distribute free menstrual products to students and provide them at no cost to students in the student center and campus buildings.
Mia Connell, the group's founder, Erin Foote, the group's current president, and Saliba poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the mission, and they have been able to distribute both biodegradable and reusable menstrual cups, as well as set up free, accessible product dispensers in the Talley Student Center.
"We've all worked really hard on this," Saliba said. "It's not something we were paid for or compensated for. We did this because we truly believe in this cause, and to see our hard work pay off is a really, really cool feeling."
Saliba and Foote pointed out that at least 15% of NCSU's student population is housing insecure and 25% is food insecure, meaning they don't know where their next meal will come from.
"It's like Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Foote said. "The housing and the food is the bare minimum that people have to figure out before they can deal with any other condition, essentially."
When students are food and housing insecure, they forgo personal care items like menstrual products.
"The reason why we chose menstrual products, specifically is because menstrual products are some of the most needed, yet very rarely donated items at food banks and homeless shelters," Saliba explained. She added that programs like SNAP and WIC, which can help people cover grocery expenses, don't cover menstrual products.
The problem of period poverty is not unique to college campuses. Michelle Old of the Diaper Bank of North Carolina said her organization collects menstrual products for people in need across the state. Old said the Diaper Bank saw an 800% increase in need since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Many times individuals are making really tough decisions between buying food and taking care of their hygiene items, whether it's period products, diapers, adult incontinence, toilet paper," Old said.
And the issue is only getting worse. In June, menstrual product manufacturers announced a shortage of tampons due to supply chain issues. Add that to a 6% increase in personal care product prices over the last year according to the latest Consumer Price Index, and costs are increasing for a monthly necessity.
The problem is, however, the North Carolina tax code doesn't see these products as a necessity. North Carolina is one of about two dozen states that still charges sales tax, otherwise known as a "luxury tax" for menstrual products. That means people who menstruate are paying 4.75-7.5% extra on each product they buy, depending on where they live.
Figures vary, but reports estimate that taxes on menstrual products alone bring in between $5 and $8 million annually to the state budget.
North Carolina State Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake) introduced the Menstrual Equity for All bill to eliminate this tax and provide more funding for period products in public schools.
"If you're a menstruating person, this is no luxury," von Haefen said. "I just feel like with rising costs for everything, this is something small that we can do, you know, to help people."
Old of the Diaper Bank of North Carolina said this is an issue that affects not just people who menstruate, but everyone.
"I think we should all be worried when our community cannot access basic hygiene items and food," Old said. "Dignity is not a privilege. You should not have to be a part of a socio economic class to afford these basic hygiene items. No one should have to struggle this hard when they have their period."
She added that even if someone does not menstruate, they likely know and care about someone who does, and that making sure those people are safe and comfortable is important.