EMU students attack ‘period poverty’ issue with dispensers of free menstrual products

YPSILANTI, MI - Period poverty is defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, sanitation facilities and adequate education.

Last summer, Eastern Michigan University senior Janelle Polasek discovered this issue on the Ypsilanti campus, using a social work class project to try and bolster the availability of free products.

Fast forward to today, and there are 20 dispensers with more than 1,000 free products in multiple EMU buildings as part of the EMU Changing the Cycle initiative, due to the work of Polasek, fellow students and local advocates.

Polasek, an Ann Arbor resident studying social work, started exploring period poverty in summer 2021 prior to her senior year. She read a study in her social work class about the lack of menstrual product access across college campuses, which showed that one in 10 college women are unable to afford period products.

“So the data was there to show that we needed a program,” Polasek said.

The class required working with a local agency on an issue, which led them to finding Swoop’s Food Pantry, an EMU organization offering assistance with food and other essential items. Polasek connected with Talecia Avery, Michaela Foster and Roya Herrle, who all worked as interns at the pantry and were already looking into addressing period poverty.

Each dispenser would cost $200, Polasek said, so the group sought funding to buy and install them, as well as fill them with free, organic products. Student organizations on the EMU campus pitched in hundreds to thousands of dollars, including the Women’s Resource Center, LGBT Resource Center, student government and a Social Work Service Learning class. In addition, the organization Aunt Flow committed funds to help the project.

By October 2021, EMU Changing the Cycle was underway, Polasek said. It serves the university Commons, Convocation Center, Marshall building, Student Center and Rackham, Sill and Strong halls, according to an EMU news release.

The locations are in both women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms, Polasek said, which is meant to increase inclusivity.

“We want to use gender-neutral language to make sure that people know it’s not just cis-women that have periods,” Polasek said.

Feedback from the EMU community has been positive, said Julie Harkema, faculty adviser to the Swoop’s Food Pantry.

EMU students attack ‘period poverty’ issue with dispensers of free menstrual products

“We are encouraged by the support from the campus community, including EMU’s Student Government and the administration,” she said. “With that support as well as how easy it was to work with Aunt Flow, the project moved ahead quickly and it’s gratifying to see students create solutions to address unseen barriers and be successful in helping their peers.”

The only criticism of Changing the Cycle has been that it is not expansive enough, Polasek said, adding that they are working with EMU officials and current sponsors on expansion.

“Residence halls are one that we have gotten a lot of feedback from, and we wouldlike to have them there,” Polasek said.

Polasek is also proud that the project provided menstrual product availability prior to Ann Arbor’s local law requiring free products.

Read more:Ann Arbor tampon law now in effect, petition calls on University of Michigan to abide

“I actually called up City Council and talked about Changing the Cycle,” Polasek said. “What a difference it had made.”

What started as a class project continues to grow, and Polasek is excited to be a part of this journey as a project manager of EMU Changing the Cycle moving forward.

“It has been amazing to see this initiative grow and be enthusiastically supported by the campus community, with so much momentum toward ending period poverty locally and at the state level,” Polasek said.

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