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Brandeis joins national conversation on free menstrual products

Brandeis joins national conversation on free menstrual products

By Hannah Schuster and Elianna Spitzer

Section: Featured, News

October 21, 2016

UPDATED 10/23

There has been debate across campus about the possibility of providing free menstrual products for students. Brandeis joins other universities in this national conversation. Brown University implemented a program this year, and other universities are working on similar initiatives. 

On Sept. 23, a columnist for The Brandeis Hoot wrote an opinion article arguing that we should provide these products for free. Jim Gray, the vice president for Campus Operations said offering free menstrual products in public restrooms “would almost certainly lead to widespread abuse and ‘stocking up’ (or vandalizing the supply) at the university’s expense, by members of our community and visitors alike,” in an email response to the writer, José Castellanos ’18. 

Gray said the basis for this concern was that it is “human nature” to take advantage of anything that is free, in a follow-up interview. However, he said that if this is an issue of great student importance, he is happy to engage with students about it. He said he did not mean to diminish the idea, but thinks this is something that should go through the Student Union and said that if representatives from the COW-G committee (Campus Operations Working Group) want to discuss this with him, he is open to talking about ideas and potentially making this happen at Brandeis. 

The committee did discuss the possibility of providing free menstrual products at their weekly meeting last Sunday. Members plan to speak with Gray about the issue soon, said Shaquan McDowell ’18, COW-G chair and senator-at-large. Other students are talking about how Brandeis might follow other schools in implementing this sort of program, including members of Brandeis Students for Reproductive Justice (BSRJ), the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) and others.

The Discussion: from Brandeis to Brown

An initiative like this could take on different forms at Brandeis. Both Gray and students shared ideas and obstacles. Points of discussion include whether Brandeis should provide students’ primary stock of menstrual product supply them just for emergency use.

At Brandeis, Gray said he is concerned that “providing [menstrual products] free will have the perverse effect of making the container empty much more often, as there is no barrier to someone taking the whole supply with them,” according to his email to Castellanos. He is not sure it is “the university’s obligation to provide [menstrual products] in unlimited supply,” which he worries having free products may be seen as, he said in the follow-up interview. 

He proposed keeping the dispenser system but making products free, which he thought would be more of a barrier to taking many of them than having a bin on the counter. He also mentioned adding menstrual products to regular vending machines. This way, people could use credit cards or bills to pay. As of now, the machines take only quarters, making them one of few services that only accepts coins. Laundry machines on campus and most vending machines and parking meters accept credit cards. 

Throughout the conversation at Brandeis, people have been considering Brown University’s initiative. 

Its program is financed and maintained by their Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS). They place 10 tampons and 10 pads in a basket in most nonresidential women’s and gender neutral bathrooms and five of each in men’s restrooms, according to Molly Naylor-Komyatte, UCS chief of staff. 

Council members restock the weekly and find that, “the products have always been used,” said Naylor-Komyatte. She said “people are demonstrating that there is a need for these products.” The program is not intended to offer a primary supply because “the scale of that endeavor would essentially be prohibitive.” They want to provide easier access, especially when students are in academic buildings and may “not have immediate access to them.” 

Naylor-Komyatte said there is no one “policing” the products, so she could not say for certain if there has been misuse.“We actually considered putting little signs by our little baskets saying … please take only what you need,” she said. However, she said, “I don’t think there’s an incentive for people to … quote sabotage,” as she thinks the campus community has responded well and respects the service. 

Lexi Ouellette ’18, president of BSRJ, said this “stocking up” might not be something Brandeis organizers believe would happen, but that it is a legitimate concern for the university.

“I think that we can move beyond this idea of there will be a free basket outside of Usdan that everyone can just sort of pillage,” she said but continued, “I think obviously trying to regulate the way that it would be distributed would be very important for both of our parties … [Gray] raises a good concern.” 

Student organizers have ideas that include both ways of presenting free menstrual products as primary and emergency supplies. 

Possibilities range from setting a bin on bathroom counters (like Brown has) to having them at the Health Center or with Community Advisors (CAs), which would both be ways to provide the products as more of a primary supply, said Ouellette. 

She said the program could be used as a primary or emergency supply by different people. It’s a class issue, she said, because for some it might be nice to know if they forget a tampon they can get one for free, but “for some students this may be a really good option to existing financial insecurities that they already face.” 

Ouellette also talked about the question of whether the university would provide products in men’s bathrooms (as Brown has done) and mentioned the idea of having the products in a space not defined by gender. 

These students plan to propose something to the Student Union. They are talking about a survey to gauge interest and need, hoping to maybe use the Union’s platform to distribute it. 

As stated, the COW-G committee has thought about this initiative. The Union could possibly use some of their budget for this initiative, according to McDowell, but it could not be a long term solution and hopes the university could find funds for this. “We can’t say we can’t do it, just because we are afraid of the cost,” McDowell said. “A necessity can’t cost too much.”

The Economic Factor 

Right now, Brandeis has coin-operated product dispensers in 73 public bathrooms, according to Gray. Each holds 20 pads and 30 tampons. Brandeis does not maintain them but contracts out to a company that refills the machines four to five times a year. Gray does not know whether the machines are empty when they are refilled. 

The cost is 50 cents for tampons and 25 cents for sanitary pads, making these products “widely available” at a subsidized cost, said Gray’s email to Castellanos. 

On average, tampons at Walgreens with plastic applicators cost 22 cents per unit, and tampons that have cardboard applicators cost 15 cents. 

The company Brandeis uses has labor and transportation costs and as a business needs to turn a profit, Gray explained. Brandeis pays a fee of around $200 per machine per calendar year, for a total cost of around $15,000. Gray said this is what he meant by a “subsidy” because if Brandeis did not pay this fee the company’s products could cost more. 

Gray said he expects students would want to buy products elsewhere for cheaper and should only use the university’s supply in emergency cases. “While we strive to provide excellent levels of service and convenience to our students, these goals are always measured against cost,” wrote Gray to Castellanos. 

The Brown UCS uses name-brand products and, again, supplies 10 of each product in women’s/gender neutral bathrooms and five of each in men’s bathrooms. They buy in bulk, purchasing approximately 2,400 pads and 2,800 tampons at one time. Naylor-Komyatte said each order is around $800. Their budget is about $8,000 for the academic school year. 

Are students using the dispensers? 

The Hoot conducted a survey to see whether menstruators on campus use the dispensers. Ninety-three percent (134 out of 144 respondents) said that they have never used the dispensers.

Thirty-two respondents who have never used the machines said that they do not carry quarters with them. Twenty-one said that they do not like the types of products provided, criticizing cardboard applicators. “We need good if not high quality, high absorbency products. Only then would I even consider purchasing them from the dispensers when I need them,” wrote a menstruator.

Another said, “[The university] provides free condoms and lube at orientation and other campus events, why not provide free menstrual products?” Student Sexuality Information Services (SSIS) subsidizes condoms for 10 cents and they are free at the Health Center. SSIS also offers subsidized DivaCups for $20 and one-time use cups for 25 cents. 

Other universities around the country are working on similar initiatives. The student government at Syracuse University wants to try offering free products, students at Cornell voted overwhelmingly in favor of a student-sponsored referendum and Northwestern students are trying to launch a pilot program. None of these schools have officially begun a program yet. 

This summer, the New York City Council voted 49-0 and the mayor approved a plan to offer free menstrual products in public schools, homeless shelters and prisons.

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