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Perspective | Overlooked diaper need for North Carolina families

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“What do you need?” someone asked about a month before my baby was due.

I had just read the New York Times article about diapers being the latest pandemic shortage and was already nervous about the added expense.

“I’m nervous about needing diapers, the rising cost, and not being able to find them,” I replied.

The news covered parents, in crisis, shoplifting diapers. No parent should be put in that position to obtain a basic need for their child’s well-being. 

I knew diapers would be a necessity and wondered about the resources for this need my family was about to face. My baby came eight days early in late October 2021, instead of the projected Nov. 1 due date. By the new year, we had changed approximately 650 diapers. 

Diaper need across North Carolina

Most families spend an average of $100 a month on diapers. Let’s break that down. A package of 37 Pampers costs just under $10 at Walmart. That’s about 27 cents per diaper. My baby is pretty laid back, but one of the things my baby hates more than anything is to have a wet diaper. That 27 cents affords me some peace and quiet, which this tired new mama needs.

All parents and children need diapers. And this was a tremendous need even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we scrambled to find toilet paper. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in three American families struggle to pay for diapers. Prices vary and the cost is only increasing. We can all relate when we think about an item that many take for granted. 

Unlike how Medicaid, SNAP, and WIC help low-income families with health and food, unfortunately, there is no federal program to support those in need, with diapers, wipes, and other early childhood needs. The National Diaper Bank Network’s North Carolina diaper facts, published in March 2021, demonstrate a jarring need all across the state. 

Enter the Diaper Bank of North Carolina (DBNC), operating out of Durham and serving the Triangle, the Greater Triad, Charlotte, and the Lower Cape Fear; and Babies Need Bottoms, serving seven counties in Western North Carolina. 

Michelle Old started DBNC in 2013 from her kitchen table with the goal to provide 50,000 diapers in Durham, but has now provided 15 million diapers statewide, with four warehouses serving 65 of the 100 counties across the state. 

Since the onset of COVID-19, “We have seen a 400% increase in diaper requests, an 800% increase in period products and a 2000% increase in adult incontinence supplies,” said Old. “It is unsustainable and overwhelming. It has not slowed down at all.”

Covering the cost can be around 14-16% of a family’s income when they’re living in poverty. Between the increased cost of living, limited employment opportunities, expensive retail cost of diapers, and significant poverty, parents are strained when trying to make ends meet and ensure they have everything for their children.

Because of this, Meagan Leimena, co-executive director of Babies Need Bottoms, said, “We have to see diaper need recognized in how it sits at the intersection of so many social needs. It affects everyone, everywhere.” 

How a diaper bank works

Diaper banks work with social services agencies and community-based organizations already working with families living in poverty or in crisis. Partnerships help to remove barriers for families by meeting them where they’re already getting services. 

“We know that something as simple as a diaper has a huge impact on the families, but also the community partners,” said Old. 

Thanks to diaper deliveries and referrals, DBNC has seen an 83% increase in home visits and client retention, increased client contact, and even increased immunization rates. It’s a ripple effect of wellness and stability for a child, parent, and family. 

Alicia Heacock, co-executive director of Babies Need Bottoms, would like to see a diaper bank in place to serve each of North Carolina’s 100 counties for better health outcomes and improved social determinants of health. Some communities have more resources than others to support families during challenges. 

People talk about the concern for food insecurity, but when families can’t afford food, they can’t afford hygiene products like diapers either. Families are working hard, with 78% working one to three jobs and still not able to afford basics. When families get diapers through a diaper bank, they’re also getting information they need to help with other challenges, like covering a utility bill, a mental health referral, getting enough to eat, access to transit, or clothing. 

Help #EndDiaperNeed

Both organizations have also stressed concern about a luxury tax on hygiene products and an interest to serve more families. Currently, diapers are categorized as household goods, along with plates, but this basic need serves to support human dignity and public health. There is a bipartisan trend around the country around repealing the sales tax on diapers.

“We are encouraged by this sort of policy movement as it results in measurable savings for families resulting in real changes in their lived experience,” said Leimena. 

Basic needs require both micro- and macro-solutions. All diaper banks require community support and donations of diapers and dollars to improve the well-being of children and families in local communities.

We asked the Diaper Bank of North Carolina and Babies Need Bottoms the best way to help them and the parents they serve now. 

Many parents say receiving diapers reduces their stress levels, so the diaper banks say they need folks to donate diapers, dollars, or time to meet that need and reduce the stress. 

Lindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders is the marketing and communications director at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.