Food bank helping women in need with more than food

Photo by Liv Meier
Julienne Cherry, director of agency relations for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Hillside, carried a red balloon around for a month to initiate conversation about the organization’s ‘Period Initiative.’

HILLSIDE, NJ — Limited finances cause many women across the country to make a difficult choice: food or feminine products.

The Community FoodBank of New Jersey, the state’s largest anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization located on Evans Terminal Road in Hillside, is looking to combat this overlooked hardship known as “period poverty.”
CFBNJ’s “Period Initiative” provides free menstruation products every month to women in need at 10 of their partner agencies and two middle schools in Newark, according to Julienne Cherry, director of agency relations. Through the initiative, it is providing 1,100 women constant access to period products for an entire year across Essex, Morris, Passaic and Somerset counties.

Even though the pilot year of this initiative only includes some counties, the CFBNJ plans to extend the initiative across the 12 counties that it serves, including neighboring Union and Hudson counties.

“Our goal is to strategically place a period initiative program, or even more than one, in each county so that any woman in need can have easy access,” Cherry said. “We want to make sure that a woman doesn’t have to take five buses just to get the products she needs from a program.”

At CFBNJ’s third annual Women Fighting Hunger Luncheon on March 1 in Short Hills, volunteers assembled feminine hygiene packs that contained a menstrual calculator, maxi pads and a snack. The packs were to be distributed to middle and high school students in need.

“We need to help our community and we need to provide access. It makes no sense that in the United States, which isn’t a Third World country, women struggle with this,” Cherry said in a March 8 phone interview, adding that feminine products are excluded from all state and federal assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Cherry wasn’t familiar with period poverty until she received a call from the National Council of Jewish Women Essex Section last year, asking what the CFBNJ was doing to fight the issue.
After learning that one in four women across the country don’t have constant access to the feminine products that they need, she made it her mission to end period poverty.

To bring awareness to the issue, Cherry carried around a red balloon for the entire month of May. When people asked about her balloon, she told them about the many women who struggle to afford feminine products.
“I wanted to make the uncomfortable conversation very comfortable,” she said. “It was my way of bringing attention to this.”

Cherry also attended the first ever Period Alliance National Conference in October where she discussed her red balloon as a symbol of silent protest to end period poverty.

The CFBNJ has been part of the National Diaper Bank Network, a national nonprofit organization that supplies families in need with diapers, since 2014 and Cherry noticed that many women who were coming for diapers, also struggled with having access to feminine products.

“Both hygiene programs — the diaper program and period initiative — go hand in hand,” she said. “Many people need products for themselves and their kids.”

One in three low-income mothers in the United States has trouble affording diapers, according to the CFBNJ, which puts them in a similar situation of choosing between food or hygiene products.

“This year we really wanted to focus on women’s needs and making sure that we are closing the gap of period poverty,” Cherry said. “Two years ago, this wasn’t even part of the conversation.”

At last year’s luncheon, family hygiene packs were assembled and distributed to families in need, Cherry said.