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City Has Handed Out Nearly 14 Million Meals During Outbreak, Adding Tampons And Pads To Distribution Sites After Push

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The Department of Education is handing out free menstrual products at some of the grab-and-go meal distribution sites. Gothamist

The city has distributed a total of 13.8 million grab-and-go meals since the public school system went remote in mid-March, and plans to continue the meal program through the summer and beyond “as long as the need persists,” the city Department of Education said on Friday.

Most of the meals distributed have been in Brooklyn, with 3,778,715 meals distributed through May 8th, the DOE said. The fewest meals have been distributed in Staten Island at 439,262.

In a DOE chart tracking distribution since the program began on March 16th through May 8th—when the total meal count was 11,929,962— demand has steadily soared almost consistently in all five boroughs as food insecurity grows amid the pandemic.

The grab-and-go meal program was launched by the city to feed the 1.1 million students in the public school system, many of whom might not have reliable access to food sources during the coronavirus pandemic. On April 3rd, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the program would expand to allow anyone, student or not, to pick up food.

The DOE also started distributing free pads and tampons at about half the meal hub sites this week after pressure from two high school students working on a project about period poverty.

Mya Abdelwahab, 16, and Nicole Soret, 17, juniors at the Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria, were already working on their “Femstrate” project about the lack of enforcement of a state law that guaranteed free menstrual supplies in middle and high schools.

“In 2018, New York state passed the law that all middle school, high school public bathrooms need to supply pads and tampons through dispensers. And we didn't see that happening in our school,” Mya said in a phone interview.

Then the pandemic hit the city, and they decided to pivot their project from accountability to action. They lobbied the city to ensure menstrual supplies distribution would continue through the grab-and-go meal sites.

"There are currently about 563,250 female students in New York City, 73 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. With over 450,000 New Yorkers currently filing for unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, the added monthly cost of menstrual pads and tampons could cause undue hardship for many families," the students wrote in a letter to de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on April 6th. They pointed out the menstrual supplies are "already within the current school year approved budget."

“We just wanted to make sure that everyone got what they needed, at such a scary time. So that kind of felt most obvious for us to do and help,” Mya said.

Sourcing was not an issue since many schools already had the supplies in stock, Nicole said. “It was more difficult ...getting the DOE to take action, obviously because things are kind of chaotic right now with the pandemic. It makes sense that it would take a little while but that was obviously one of the more frustrating aspects of this doing this project,” Nicole said.

Their Global Exchange class teacher Emily Fields said the DOE “took it in an appreciative way—like ‘thank you for reminding us.’ I mean, this just wasn't something we thought of and we should be. But now hopefully, if this ever happens again, this is part of the plan.”

The students now plan to bring the distribution to sites beyond the DOE in their new campaign to partner with community-based organizations.

A spokesperson for the DOE said the agency would start rolling out distribution this week.

“Thank you to the young people who brought this need to our attention. Supporting the health and wellness of our students is important and we are proud to provide access to feminine hygiene products in schools. Because of the advocacy of these young people, we are making the feminine hygiene supplies in our schools available to the public at many meal hubs across the city,” said Nathaniel Styer, DOE spokesperson, in an email statement.

The menstrual products will be available at 211 sites—Fields said these sites were likely chosen because they are middle and high school buildings that already had supplies in place.

See the list of distribution sites here.

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