Mid-South Food Bank helms coalition to supply diapers, period products in Memphis

What do you do if you're low-income, short on cash and in need of diapers or menstruation products? 

Almost 40 percent of Memphis' youth live in poverty, and disposable diapers cost an average $70 to $80 per month per child. Public assistance programs are typically restricted to rent, utilities and food while diapers and hygiene products, including period products, are ineligible.  

“Without access to these essential supplies, low-income families and women have to make difficult choices regarding use of limited resources," said Mid-South Food Bank President & CEO Estella Mayhue-Greer.

There are organizations in Memphis that supply these products, but Mayhue-Greer said the city lacks a solution "on a scale large enough to make a significant impact." 

To address that need, MSFB is now coordinating the new Bare Needs Diaper Bank. Opened in July, Bare Needs is Memphis’ first large-scale warehouse, distribution facility and partner network for diapers and period products. 

Shari Douglas, Bare Needs Diaper Bank's new director, poses with a donation of diapers in the Mid-South Food Bank warehouse. (Mid-South Food Bank)“The mission of the Bare Needs Diaper Bank Program is to promote the well-being of low-income families and individuals by ensuring improved access to diapers and period products and to raise awareness of the need for this service,” said Shari Douglas, Bare Needs' director.

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, one in three U.S. families experience diaper need. Babies without adequate clean diapers are at risk for rashes, urinary tract infections, psychological stress and behavioral issues. Few daycare centers provide diapers, leaving some low-incoming parents unable to work.

Similarly, cloth diapers may be cheaper in the long run, but they aren't typically allowed at daycare centers. They also require a big expense on the front end and easy access to laundry facilities, which low-income families may not have.

“I want people to understand how hard it is for families to meet all of their children's needs,” said Douglas. “It’s one of the highest expenses families have.”

why a food bank is right for diapers

Since Sept 2018, Memphis-based Urban Child Institute has hosted diaper need awareness and collection events and distributed more than 63,000 diapers to an average 117 children monthly.

In early 2019, UCI began convening potential partners for an expanded, coalition-based effort.

They reached out to the National Diaper Bank Network for advice, who recommended UCI host a diaper drive. The drive brought it 50,000 diapers in just two weeks. UCI quickly realized they were out of their depth and reached out to MSFB about housing a diaper bank.

MSFB was ideal for Bare Needs because of their expertise in warehousing and distribution. MSFB distributes 15 million pounds of food annually to more than 300 partner agencies across 31 counties in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. 

“The food bank is the star of the show, we are just here now to offer support,” said Dominique DeFreece, UCI's special events coordinator. “We’ve run with it as far as we can, and we are passing the baton. I’m really excited about where the Mid-South Food Bank will take it.”

MSFB joined the National Diaper Bank Network in anticipation of Bare Needs' launch. Membership provides access to truckload and bulk rates for diapers and infant products.

“We have always distributed diapers and other donated non-food items but not on a larger and more direct scale," said Douglas.

MSFB also moved in mid-July to a new 167,000-square-foot facility at 3865 South Perkins Road and anticipates the space will drastically increase all distribution capacities.

“We currently push out about 15 million pounds of food a year. With the efficiency and location of our new building and new processes, we can increase distribution to about 25 million pounds of food a year by the year 2025 or before,” said Douglas.

Volunteers Julius Collins and Martinez Clay sort through donations for the Bare Needs Diaper Bank. (Mid-South Food Bank)

collective effort

UCI and MSFB built a network of partners who will receive donations from Bare Needs and distribute them to individuals in need.

Currently there are nine distribution partners: The Hagar Center, Department of Children's Services Resource Linkage, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, One By One Ministries, Agape Child & Family Services, Porter-Leath, Hope House, Perea Preschool and The Hospitality Hub.

Many partners were already providing diapers and hygiene products but will now be able to offer more consistent and expanded distribution.

MSFB hopes to soon incorporate the diaper bank into their mobile food pantry work and begin providing baby wipes.

There are additional partners supporting Bare Needs, including Shelby County Schools and Sister Supply, a Memphis-based organization fighting period poverty by providing menstruation supplies to those with financial hardship. 

UCI is allocating $100,000 towards Bare Needs in 2019 and plans to be an ongoing fiscal sponsor, as well as provide support with fundraising, event planning and media relations. Coalition partners Dorcas Young and Cherry Whitehead-Thompson, division director and deputy administrator of the Shelby County Community Services Agency, helped secure $200,000 worth of product donations from the county.

“We just want the needs to be met," said Sister Supply's Eli Cloud. "[Ending] period poverty is not an unattainable goal." 

A pallet of diaper and period products sits in the Mid-South Food Bank's spacious new warehouse. The MSFB is housing and managing the Bare Needs Diaper Bank. (Mid-South Food Bank)

The problem with policy

Diapers and hygiene products are considered luxury items by government assistance programs like SNAP and WIC, which are reserved for food expenses.

Families First is Tennessee's temporary assistance or TANF program for families with financial hardship. Families First dollars can be used on diapers and period products, but the average monthly benefit in 2019 is only about $240 per household. Families typically need that money for rent, utilities, food and transportation.

The Bare Needs partners say the laws need to change and fast.

“We never wanted Sister Supply to become a job," said Cloud. "In fact, access to these products shouldn’t even be an issue."

"We hope that in the future that the SNAP program [or] other government programs will include these items as a part of these programs without charge," said Charlie Hubbard, head of Dads and Diapers of Memphis.

Several states exempt diapers and period products from taxation, but Tennessee does not. State lawmakers have introduced related bills but none have succeeded. 

“Making diapers tax-free is one law that could be put in place on the state level that could help us move towards making diapers accessible for all,” said DeFreece. “However, government assistance is a hard nut to crack. It is too few dollars that have to be used for multiple necessities like rent, transportation and food.”

In the meantime, Bare Needs and its coalition of partners will work to fill the gaps.  

"I am confident in our ability to continue what we do best, which is to serve those in need," said Douglas. 

Bare Needs Diaper Bank will hold its Bundles for Babies diaper drive during National Diaper Needs Awareness Week from September 22 to 29. For more information, click here.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education and whole-child support. The Urban Child Institute focuses its grantmaking, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

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Read more articles by Jeff Hulett.

Originally from Chicago, Jeff moved to Memphis in 1990 not really knowing much about the south. In fact, the first week he lived here he was suspended from school for not saying, "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am." Jeff has since developed a passion for Memphis and especially Memphis music. A member of several bands including Snowglobe and Me & Leah, Jeff works as a communications consultant with many non-profits including Playback Memphis, Church Health, Room in the Inn-Memphis and BLDG Memphis. Jeff lives in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood with his wife and two daughters.