Anna Chen, Contributing Writer
Over 60% of VCU students are female, according to the university website; however, student Kaitlyn Dawson said she doesn’t rely on menstrual product machines in the bathroom because they are “always empty.”
While Dawson can’t find products in the public campus restrooms, Ram Pantry, an organization aimed at reducing food insecurity and providing students with free and fresh produce, also provides students free hygiene and menstrual products such as pads, tampons and panty liners, according to university spokesperson Lisa Mathews-Ailsworth.
Disposable menstrual products, such as pads and tampons, are also provided through donations from other organizations such as RecWell and the Free Store. Every product at Ram Pantry is donated and free to students. The majority of period products, 80%, are donated by the Interfaith Campus Ministries Association, according to Mathews-Ailsworth. Disposable products such as pads and tampons are available, however reusable menstrual products, such as menstrual cups, have not been donated.
“I guess they [VCU] could make it more obvious that there’s stuff available,” Dawson said. “They should let people know and make it more available if there isn’t.”
University public relations did not respond in time after multiple contact attempts about how often menstrual product machines are filled and how much each product costs.
“University funds aren’t used to purchase anything for distribution by the Ram Pantry at this time, everything is on a donated basis,” Mathews-Ailsworth stated in an email.
Other organizations on campus, such as Planned Parenthood Generation Action at VCU, have held menstrual product drives and donated the products to nearby organizations in the Richmond community.
Kayla Simpson, president of Planned Parenthood Generation Action at VCU, said providing free menstrual products is something that the organization has thought about doing and hopes to have a more active role in.
“It does sound like a good thing that we should definitely become a part of more, because VCU, I feel like, should have a more actionable role when it comes to that too,” Simpson said.
Assistant professor of political science, Jessica Trisko Darden, teaches a women and global politics course at VCU, and believes access to menstrual health products is closely related to education, because individuals may have anxiety related to attending classes while menstruating.
“I actually see this as an important access-to-education issue,” Trisko Darden said. “To the degree that the university is able to provide these products on campus, we’re actually helping ensure that our students are able to attend classes, able to participate in athletics and spend time in the library without having an additional stressor.”
Trisko Darden said if the university were to provide such free products on campus, they’d be helping to “level the playing field” for families and individuals, by not burdened them with this “additional cost because of their biological sex.”
“What we want to do is have them publicly accessible so that those who need to access them for free can,” Trisko Darden said.
Ram Pantry does not require people to provide proof of need when obtaining products and food, menstrual or otherwise, stated Mathews-Ailsworth.
Studies have shown that 84% of teenage girls in the U.S. have either missed school or know somebody who has while menstruating, according to the National Education Association.
Virginia Code 22.1-6.1 states that all school boards must have free menstrual products such as tampons and pads available in all middle and high school restrooms and in elementary schools “as it deems appropriate.” The code was established in 2020.
This past year, Richmond Public Schools have installed touchless, free menstrual product distributors in all girls bathrooms, locker rooms and in some gender-neutral bathrooms, according to RPS superintendent Jason Kamras.
Michelle Hudacsko, RPS chief of staff, said it was always something the school division wanted to do.
“Teenage girls say that they struggle to be able to afford tampons, pads and et cetera, and so of those, many say they’ve missed school or know somebody who has,” Hudacsko said.
The installation cost just under $200,000 between the cost of the dispensers, waste receptacles and the initial menstrual products, according to Hudacsko.
“We made it work, we moved some things around in our budget because it was a priority as we think about menstrual equity,” Hudacsko said.
In 2019, Senate Bill 1715 reduced the state sales and use tax on all menstrual products to 1.5%. Senate Bill 231 calls for the elimination of these taxes on all menstrual products. This bill passed in the state Senate in 2020 but has never made it past the Virginia House of Representatives.
“Just as we think about access to education, access to basic health and wellness things, we just knew that this was the right thing to do,” Hudacsko said.