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1 in 3 menstruating Americans suffer from 'period poverty.' This woman wants to change that.

When Jessica Zachs learned that a rising number of girls, women and those who menstruate couldn’t access basic period products, she launched Dignity Grows, a nonprofit to combat the gender inequity.
Hartford-resident Jessica Zachs started the nonprofit Dignity Grows in 2019 after learning that 20 percent of American women and girls struggled with access to basic period products.
Hartford-resident Jessica Zachs started the nonprofit Dignity Grows in 2019 after learning that 20 percent of American women and girls struggled with access to basic period products.Courtesy Jessica Zachs, Dignity Grows

In 2019, when Jessica Zachs saw the Oscar-winning documentary "Period. End Of Sentence.," about the women in India struggling with access to menstrual products, she had never heard of the term “period poverty.”

Defined as the lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and education that affects many women globally, “period poverty” can cause physical, mental and emotional challenges. The World Bank estimates the gender inequity impacts 500 million people across the globe.

“The thought that someone, anyone, would not have access to period products greatly touched something deep within me,” Zachs recently told Know Your Value. “My dad used to say, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ and I have always taken those words to heart. Feeling pretty confident that there was no such issue in the U.S., I quickly learned how wrong I was.”

At the time, the mother-of-three discovered that in some areas of the country, as many as 20 percent of women, girls and individuals who menstruate couldn’t access or afford period and hygiene products, leading to absenteeism at school, missed work opportunities and a widening gender divide.

“First, I was shocked, then I was angry and then this ‘little knowledge’ propelled me to take action,” she said.

Zachs – a philanthropist – resolved to address the disparity starting in her own community in Hartford, CT. She launched a one-night initiative where local volunteers gathered to provide menstrual and hygiene products for those who could not afford these monthly essentials.

Initially a limited collaboration with other social agencies, the project quickly grew through word of mouth as individuals and organizations across the country learned about her mission. As a result, the nonprofit Dignity Grows was born – and not a moment too soon.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, she emphasized that nearly one in three Americans who menstruate experience some form of period poverty. Part of this public health crisis stems from the lack of support under current federal policy, where menstrual hygiene necessities are not covered by SNAP, WIC or other government-assistance programs, and are rarely available at food pantries.

Coupled with the fact that most states impose a tax on menstrual hygiene supplies – commonly classified as nonessential goods and subject to sales tax – many are forced to choose between buying groceries and prescription medication – or period supplies.

Dignity Grows has expanded to nearly 60 chapters across the country with a 3,000-strong volunteer base, and distributed over 110,000 tote bags filled with a month’s supply of period and hygiene essentials.

Know Your Value caught up with Zachs, 63, about her journey building the organization, spurring a nationwide movement and sharing her advice for women seeking a path in philanthropy. Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Know Your Value: How does period poverty affect women, girls and individuals who menstruate?

Jessica Zachs: Period Poverty is a debilitating, often overlooked form of gender and health inequity. The latest studies show that nearly 30 percent of American girls, women and individuals who menstruate cannot afford monthly period products, resulting in chronic school absenteeism, un- or underemployment, and potentially critical medical issues.

Impacting an astounding one in three Americans, this issue transcends economic lines and impacts families living well above the traditional poverty line.

In most states, hygiene products are not covered by government assistance programs, which widens the gender gap, health, social, economic and racial inequality.

Without these items, menstruating teens miss up to 145 total days of school by the 12th grade and for adults, missed work hours add up, resulting in lower paychecks and stumbling blocks to advancement. Food pantries rarely, if ever, receive hygiene donations.

Know Your Value: Tell us about your background in philanthropy. How did your experiences help scale up the organization?

Zachs: My parents were instrumental in my journey to help others, starting when I was young. My sisters and I put on yearly Muscular Dystrophy Carnivals in our backyard, proud of every penny we raised, understanding we were helping someone we would never meet.

I have always been a “doer” and that trait led me to volunteer for a myriad of causes and organizations over the years. As I got older I began to narrow the focus of my involvement and became active in women’s and children-driven philanthropic ventures.

My involvement led me to the National Young Leadership Cabinet and later to the National Women’s Philanthropy Board of Jewish Federations of North America. I also became active as a volunteer and board member at Cornell University, my alma mater, and with several social service organizations.

Volunteering and becoming more intimately involved with large organizations helped me hone my personal philanthropic efforts. Learning from more seasoned philanthropists helped me see the difference between doing in the moment versus creating, living, and breathing a whole movement and the nuance of each small step to ensure larger goals.

Know Your Value: What were some of the challenges you faced growing the nonprofit, especially through the Covid pandemic?

Zachs: When most organizations were slowing down and closing their doors, we recognized that the need for Dignity Grows’ services were drastically increasing. We made a choice to respond by growing faster than we ever anticipated and working to fulfill the skyrocketing demand for hygiene products.

Concurrently, we saw a growing need for connection; in their isolation, people were longing for something to do, some way to help. Our volunteer base increased ten-fold during the pandemic, as we were able to engage the community members safely and in a way that made a noticeable difference in volunteers’ hometowns.

But our greatest external challenge has been navigating the supply chain and drastic increases in product and shipping costs. However, our growing footprint as the national leader in combating period poverty and carefully curated strategic partnerships have enabled Dignity Grows to maintain a steady growth trajectory, continually onboarding new chapters and launching new resources.

Know Your Value: What are your longterm goals for the organization?

Zachs: In response to the overwhelming demand for our services across the nation, Dignity Grows is embarking upon a new phase of strategic growth and expansion. Our community-based chapters perform the “boots on the ground” work to ensure our neighbors have monthly access to hygiene products.

On the national level, there is tremendous growth on the horizon. Through our planned systematic direct outreach and distribution programs, akin to the sort of coverage sustained by our nation’s food banks, the organization's growth will be fueled.

Dignity Grows is at the forefront of changing the narrative and policy on period poverty. By 2028, we project we will be providing menstrual hygiene support to a million Americans each year.

Simultaneously, we are partnering with medical and academic powerhouses to generate in-depth data on the issue of period poverty and its long-term effects to develop innovative policy solutions.

Know Your Value: How has this journey impacted you personally?

Zachs: While I have long been dedicated to philanthropic work, I’ve never before felt so impassioned by this critical and basic issue. Access to hygiene was something I took for granted, something I never thought about. Then came that small bit of knowledge that not everyone is so fortunate.

Other unmet basic human needs are discussed. Hunger and food insecurity are open topics, discussed without judging the under-fed.

The conversation about hygiene is different, especially menstrual hygiene. Viewed as a "woman's issue," menstrual hygiene discussion is still taboo and spoken about in hushed tones. Girls missing school, sports, social events: unacceptable. Women missing work and losing wages: unacceptable. Individuals and families missing religious and social events: unacceptable.

After years of supporting a myriad of causes, I found my calling. I needed to help uplift and empower girls and women to stay present in their days.

Know Your Value: What advice do you have for women who want to pursue a career in philanthropy?

Zachs: Philanthropy is a journey that starts with a passion. Trust yourself and your instincts. Be brave, find your voice and act upon what you know is right. Don’t be scared by what you don’t know; allow the unknown to propel you forward.

Study and learn and then study and learn some more. Find a mentor. Admit what you don’t know and engage others who can help. Start small and local. There is so much to do in the communities where we live. We often think that so much about philanthropy is about money, but in truth, it’s about vision and action.