Kids In America Are Missing School Because They Can’t Afford Toothpaste And Tampons

This article first appeared in HuffPost’s Impact section

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The shiny metal cabinet in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom is full of necessary supplies — not paper and pencils, but personal care products. (Credit: Sarah Helms)

The locked metal cabinet doesn’t look amiss in Sarah Helms’ sixth grade classroom, with its bright yellow walls and green plastic stationery caddies. But rather than pencils, pens or binder paper, its shelves hold bottles of shampoo and body wash, soap, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, sanitary pads and tampons.

For the past three school years, Helms, an English teacher at Horace Maynard Middle School in Maynardville, Tennessee, has stocked a “hygiene closet” with personal care items donated for students from low-income families by fellow teachers, current and former Horace Maynard parents, and members of the community. Helms uses cash donations to buy supplies at the dollar store. Her parents gave her the cabinet.

“I noticed certain kids being picked on for not being well groomed, and I felt that many children were just too shy to go to an adult and ask for help with the items they needed,” Helms told HuffPost. She could see how it eroded their self-esteem when their classmates commented on their appearance or body odor.

Once a month, Helms pulls toothpaste, tampons and other toiletries — including “random donations,” such as hairbrushes, combs, body spray and lip balm — from the hygiene cabinet and packs them into plastic grocery bags for 14 girls and 17 boys.

“A huge blessing” is how one Horace Maynard parent I contacted described the hygiene closet at her son’s school. Helms reached out to this single mom (she asked to remain anonymous) at the start of the school year to see whether her son would be interested in receiving a hygiene pack. She said yes. Her son’s monthly bag includes shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, razors and cologne.

Closet program increase highlights poverty gap

Horace Maynard’s hygiene closet is just one of the thousands of similar programs in public elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S., according to data from DonorsChoose.org, an online giving platform where public school teachers can ask for funds for their classroom needs. The site has seen requests for hygiene and personal care products mushroom, from just one in 2002 to 1,789 last year. Nearly two-thirds of requests come from schools in urban areas, and they are particularly common among schools where three-quarters of students or more are from low-income households.

Over a third of pupils at Horace Maynard are eligible to receive a free or reduced-priced lunch, and some benefit from the school district’s donation-supplied food program, which provides students a weekly bag of groceries to take home to their families.

Helms sends her students home with hygiene bags the Friday before the end of the month. “This is usually when items are needed most because those families who are on food stamps are low on money for other things like hygiene items,” she explained.

The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) provide state-level monthly help to low-income households in the form of a pre-loaded card to purchase vegetables, fruit, dairy and pantry items. Recipients cannot, however, use the cards to purchase non-food items, including toiletries and sanitary products.

Lisa Greenig, a teacher at Fairfield Middle School in southeast Iowa, said the idea for her school’s hygiene closet came about after a discussion with fellow teachers about SNAP restrictions. “Hygiene items can be expensive. Considering 50% of our students live under federal poverty guidelines, I decided to go public with the idea,” she said. “The community embraced the idea and has been very generous to help stock the closet,” which the school started in January.

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The hygiene closet at Iowa’s Fairfield Middle School, where half of the students live below the poverty line. (Credit: Lisa Greenig)

So far, about 24 families have signed up ― parents and guardians of students just have to complete a registration form to receive items from the hygiene closet. “We did not want to risk offending anyone by offering a bag of products without them submitting a request,” Greenig said. “At no time do we want families to feel embarrassed about using the closet.”

Greenig hopes more families, often reluctant to ask for help, will access the program once they realize how private distribution is. “Re-orders typically come through email directly to me. I pack a bag and quietly place the items in the student’s locker. Refills fit in student backpacks so they can be carried home.” With support from local businesses, such at the Hy-Vee grocery store, and backing from school Superintendent Laurie Noll and school board member Jennifer Anderson, Greenig says the district has plans to expand the program to the high school and two elementary schools.

School attendance and self esteem at risk

Other programs are a direct response to changing family circumstances, such as homelessness. “We’ve had an increase in families losing their housing, doubled or even tripled up in a household,” said Stephanie Martinez, program director of student services for the Jefferson Elementary School District in California’s Bay Area. “It’s been pretty drastic and very challenging [for students] if they’ve lost their housing or have a long commute into school.” Martinez is planning a hygiene pack program for the new school year to help students from the 100-plus families in the district living in transitional housing or shelters.

Lack of access to hygiene products can have a negative effect on the lives of children and teens, said Aleta Angelosante, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at New York University’s Langone Health: “If you are outwardly having difficulties with hygiene, it can certainly lead to at best being more neglected or ignored, at worst being pointed out and bullied in some way.”

North Carolina nonprofit BackPack Beginnings set up a personal care pantry in its Greensboro headquarters about 18 months ago to help schools in Guilford County provide products to students.“We have heard stories concerning the way it impacts self-esteem and the fact that some are skipping school because they are embarrassed by their own hygiene,” said BPB Executive Director Parker White.

Nearly 1 in 5 girls in the U.S., for example, have either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to sanitary products. “Many have heard of teachers buying food for their students, but fewer people hear about them buying hygiene products. Our teachers are underpaid as is, and we want to take this burden off their plate.”

According to a survey of teachers who use DonorsChoose.org to make funding requests, 84% in the highest poverty schools have purchased essentials such as hygiene products for their students. Of those, 63% report spending more than $100 per year on these items.

Parker said about two dozen schools currently access the BPB pantry program, helping hundreds of students across the district.

Fighting for hygiene equity in schools

While programs led and funded by nonprofits and teachers are to be celebrated, hygiene equity campaigners say this issue calls for state intervention. Most hygiene items are taxed under state laws; some, such as dandruff shampoo and chapstick, are not. Some progress has been made around access to sanitary products and several states, including Nevada and Florida, have removed the so-called “tampon tax.” California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom is unveiling a budget plan this week that would drop sales taxes on menstrual products.

But as long as government programs such as SNAP continue to put toothpaste and tampons on the same list of prohibited purchases as tobacco and beer, teachers, parents and local communities will likely still provide such items for low-income students.

Helms said the hygiene closet program had show her just how much of a lifeline this and other assistance schemes are for many students in her community. As the Horace Maynard mother I spoke to told me, “The closet at my son’s school has helped us tremendously. The products that are sent home are used by all my kids. It’s really a very thoughtful thing to do to help make sure the kids feel loved. I would tell everyone that has donated thank you. A million times over, thank you.”

 

Northern California Fires Decimate Low-Income Communities

This article first appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

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Sisters Selam (left) and Simret play cards to help pass the time while their family seeks refuge from the wildfires at a Red Cross shelter in Santa Rosa, California.
Photo by Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross 

Northern California’s wildfires have sparked headlines around the world for their devastating impact on popular Wine Country destinations like Napa and Sonoma. But as firefighters gradually contain the flames and evacuated residents return to their homes, the story emerging is one not just of lost lives and jobs but also of the ‘hidden’ victims: the undocumented and low-income workers so crucial to the local economy.

“One of the deadliest and costliest wildfire catastrophes in California’s history” is how the state’s insurance commissioner Dave Jones describes recent events. According to CalFire, at least 42 people have died and over 8,400 structures (homes, outbuildings and commercial properties) have been destroyed in the wildfires which began on October 8. Thousands have been displaced from homes that range from wineries and town houses to trailer parks.

CalFire has declared the Tubbs wildfire the state’s worst ever, claiming 22 lives and 5,300 structures. Four of the fires —Tubbs and Nuns in Sonoma, Atlas in Napa and Solano, and Mendocino’s Redwood Valley — now rate among the top 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history.

The fires have dealt yet another harsh blow to Napa, which is still recovering from the magnitude 6 earthquake that hit the south of the county in 2014. The quake caused an estimated $400 million in public and private sector damages and at least $80 million in losses to the wine sector. Preliminary estimates of losses from the current wildfires exceed $1 billion, according to Jones.

What next for undocumented workers?

California’s wildfires are the latest disaster that the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) has had to deal with this year, quickly following major hurricanes that affected eight states and two U.S. territories. Applications are now open for FEMA disaster assistance grantsto help homeowners and renters pay for temporary housing, essential home repairs and uninsured/underinsured personal property losses.

Recovering from the wildfires will be particularly hard for undocumented workers employed by the region’s vineyards, hotels, and restaurants as they are not eligible for FEMA assistance unless they have a U.S. citizen in their household (e.g. a child with a Social Security number).

Napa County is home to between 11,000 and 15,000 undocumented immigrants and an estimated 28,000 live and work in Sonoma County. Many juggle two or more jobs to make ends meet. Unlike foreign national workers on the H-2A visa program that requires employers to provide free housing and transportation for seasonal agricultural employees, these workers have no safety net.

Ana Lugo, president of Sonoma-based campaign group North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP), says undocumented fire victims are dealing with losses of property and income but fear that seeking help, for instance via the local assistance centers which act as one-stop shops for disaster support, will lead to deportation.

“It’s overwhelming: they can’t pay their rent or buy food because they haven’t worked for two weeks,” says Lugo. “They were already so vulnerable before the fires; now they don’t know where to go for help.”

NBOP is among the founders of UndocuFund, which raised over $454,000 in its first week to provide direct assistance to undocumented fire victims. The fund will be administered by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, a national nonprofit based in Sebastopol, with support from Graton Day Labor Center, NBOP, and North Bay Jobs with Justice.

UndocuFund will help with costs such as temporary housing, home repairs, and medical care. “We’re in desperate need of more funds,” Lugo said. “People are going to need much more to get back on their feet.”

Supporting low-income families

California has the nation’s highest poverty rate — around 20 percent — if factors such as cost of living are factored in. The average vineyard worker salary is $30,528 or $15 an hour. But a 2013 study by the California Budget Project suggests a two-parent family with one employed parent needs an annual income of $50,383 (equivalent to an hourly wage of $24.22) while a family with two working parents needs to earn $72,343 a year (equivalent to each parent earning an hourly wage of $17.39).

The Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) in Santa Rosa has been distributing food to fire victims via its own drive-through facility and across 70 percent of its regular distribution sites in Sonoma County. REFB says most of those using the food bank have lost their jobs either temporarily or permanently due to the fires. Some have several evacuated families staying with them in their home. And many are low-income families who were already receiving food before the fires.

“Many people working in the service industry could have already been on the edge, receiving food at work, and now they are without jobs,” explains David Goodman, CEO at REFB.

The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, run by Redwood Credit Union, state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), and the local newspaper The Press Democrat, has raised $11.3 million from more than 17,000 donors. The fund has allocated $6 million to support families who lost their homes in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, and Mendocino counties

Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco based anti-poverty group, has also set up a relief fund for “low income, vulnerable communities” impacted by the crisis, including vineyard workers, immigrants, displaced young people, and students. Phase one of funding will address urgent needs; phase two will support mid- and long-term rebuilding efforts.

In California, Latinos make up 71 percent of the workforce at vineyards and more than 40 percent of the tourism and hospitality workforce. In Sonoma’s Santa Rosa, a community decimated by the fires, Latinos account for a third of the population.

The Latino Community Foundation (LCF) has just launched the NorCal Wildfires Relief Fund to support the emergency relief and long-term reconstruction work of three regional Latino nonprofit organizations – North Bay Organizing Project in Santa Rosa, La Luz Center in Sonoma, and UpValley Family Centers in Calistoga.

Sara Velten, vice president – philanthropy at LCF, says the fund — which hopes to start distributing funds this week — will be a lifeline for low income families: “In a regular year, the winter months are hard. With the harvest season cut short, people will need help to survive,” she says.

Housing challenges

Even before the wildfires, housing in this region was scarce and costly due to limited stock and proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Santa Rosa lost over 2,900 homes, or 5 percent of its housing stock, with middle-class neighborhoods such as Coffey Park and two mobile home parks for seniors among the worst casualties. On Craigslist, the cheapest one-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,200 per month.

Joye Storey, an emergency disaster services director with the Salvation Army, says the housing prognosis is not good for low-income families. “People who already had a small window of choices and living paycheck to paycheck will have to be relocated out of town. If they have a job in town, that means a higher price for gasoline and another layer of stress.”

More affordable housing for low-income immigrant workers was among the recommendations of a 2012 Migration Policy Institute report funded by the Napa Valley Community Foundation.

NVCF president Terence Mulligan says: “More and more families are living in overcrowded housing or commuting from other counties. The worry is that housing costs are so astronomical that soon we won’t have a workforce.”