Along with the cost of food and other items, inflation has impacted the cost of menstrual products.
Average prices for both tampons and pads rose nearly 10 percent last year, according to Bloomberg News. The material used to make such products, such as cotton and plastic, were in short supply over the pandemic.
Laurie Merrill, executive director and founder of Free Flow New Mexico, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe, said she buys menstrual products in bulk, which lowers the overall cost, but she said that she has seen a 33 percent jump in the cost of period products.
“I was able before to get tampons for 16 cents a piece now it’s at 21 cents a piece. That’s at bulk pricing,” she said.
Merrill said that while 21 cents might not seem like much, that’s for one tampon. And if there are multiple menstruating individuals within one household struggling to also pay for groceries and other household items, which have also gone up in price, the cost can add up.
Merrill said she started Free Flow New Mexico during the early part of the pandemic because she saw a need.
“I was wondering where some students who were unable to get period products would get them when they couldn’t get them from the nurse’s station,” Merrill said.
She said that with district approval, she began providing products both curbside and through school bus delivery of school lunches. In 2020 she distributed 300 bags every month with a one-month supply of menstrual products per bag. That included 15 pads, five tampons, five liners and an offer for period cups and reusable pads and panties.
But that need has only grown since 2020 when she began. Three years later she is distributing 750 bags a month, which amounts to about 20,000 period products a month.
Merrill has also expanded her reach. In addition to serving menstruating individuals in Santa Fe, her organization has expanded to include free period product distribution to Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
Merrill said she has seen a need in the colleges for free menstrual products.
“One out of every five menstruating college students experiences period poverty. That’s 20 percent of menstruating college students,” she said.
Merrill said Free Flow New Mexico has expanded to include free period product drop offs at four New Mexico universities.
“It’s very much an unspoken group of individuals struggling at college,” she said.
Merrill said part of the problem is that there are no state or federal programs providing free menstrual products.
Timothy Fowler, public relations coordinator for New Mexico Human Services Department, said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can only be used for food products and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates what can be considered an eligible food item.
“As it is a nutrition assistance program, only eligible food items can be purchased,” Fowler said in an email.
Similarly, the Women, Infants and Children program, is federally funded to provide supplemental nutrition and health care support for children up to age five and for individuals who are pregnant, postpartum or nursing, David Morgan, public information officer for New Mexico Department of Health, said.
“Any changes allowing the program to distribute menstrual products would require both approval and funding by the federal government,” Morgan said via email.
HB 134, Menstrual Products in the School Bathrooms, passed the legislature and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill earlier this year. The new law, sponsored by now retired state Rep. Christina Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, will mean free menstrual products will be available through dispensaries in bathrooms in New Mexico public schools, but the bill did not include public colleges.
State Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos, was one of the cosponsors to the bill. She said that having free menstrual products should be a right and providing the products is about public health. She said she is open to expanding upon the bill to provide free menstrual products in state colleges and universities.
Ortez said the menstrual products bill came about because a group of teenagers came to legislators asking it and, at that time, the focus was on public schools. Ortez said she heard stories of public school teachers paying out of pocket to help students who needed menstrual products.
“This is just a fact of life. It’s the reason why life exists. It’s part of our process as humans. I think whatever we can do we should to reduce the shame to normalize the experience,” she said.
Menstrual product prices on Tribal land
Indigenous Women Rising, a grassroots organization serving Native individuals, also started offering free menstrual products during the pandemic because they heard from Native individuals who needed help.
Leigh Anne Lorenzo, Pueblo of Laguna and community engagement coordinator for Indigenous Women Rising, said the cost of menstrual products for individuals who live on reservations and pueblos was more costly before inflation began impacting everyone else.
“Everything on Tribal land is more costly,” Lorenzo said.
In addition, there is not a wide variety of choices in terms of product availability in the stores that serve Native individuals, she said.
IWR distributes free menstrual products in person at tables they set up at Native events, Jennifer Lim, IWR communications and media director, said. Lim said IWR also has an online form for Native individuals to request products online since they do not have to live in New Mexico to receive help. The only requirement is that the individual is Native.
Lorenzo said that for Native individuals who live on Tribal land, internet access can be another barrier to accessing menstrual products other than through a local store and, in some cases, that can require long drives and the cost of gas.
Lim said IWR distributes, for free, conventional pads and tampons but also eco-friendly products such as reusable cups and pads.
Lim said IWR staff have seen shame and stigma for menstruating people regardless of age when IWR table events.
“When people talk, we see it in our interactions,” Lim said.
Lorenzo said it is fairly common amongst Native families for grandparents to be raising grandchildren and many of those elders grew up being forced by the U.S. government to attend boarding schools. Lorenzo said IWR sees many of those individuals struggle not with just talking about menstrual products but also with knowing how to talk to their grandchildren about sex education.
Lorenzo said higher priced menstrual products impacts all people of color.
“We’re all close in community together. We all shop at the same place,” she said.