Megan Fischer talks of a family that must choose between buying food or diapers. Of another that faces using the same diaper all day long in order to pay the electric bill. Of another that cleans out disposable diapers to use again.
One in three U.S. families lack enough diapers to keep a baby clean, dry, and healthy. In Greater Cincinnati, more than 16,000 children experience diaper need each month.
“Something that most people don’t realize is that these products aren’t covered under any government programs,” explains Fischer, CEO and founder of Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank, Greater Cincinnati’s first and only nonprofit diaper bank. “You need to have cash to buy diapers, and they’re really expensive. That forces choices like leaving your baby in the same diaper for two days, or reusing disposable diapers.”
Fischer learned of all of this back in 2014 when she was pregnant with her second child. Hearing this, and knowing she would soon be diapering her own baby multiple times a day, she looked for a local resource where she could donate diapers. But at that time, no diaper bank existed in Cincinnati.
The fallout of not being able to supply a child with diapers is staggering. Fischer says babies who lack sufficient diapers have trouble bonding with their mothers. They can suffer physical and emotional delays. And diaper need can have a detrimental effect on a mother’s mental health. “
Not being able to buy diapers or properly diaper a child adds an enormous amount of stress to an already stressed household,” Fischer says.
In addition, when a child is left in the same diaper for too long, it can lead to diaper rash, staph, and urinary tract infections that sometimes result in hospitalization.
Government programs for those living in poverty are mainly nutrition-based programs, meaning the funds can go toward food. So candy can be purchased using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (previously known as food stamps), but diapers can’t. Likewise, diapers can’t be purchased through Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers or Medicaid.
Fischer couldn’t get the heartbreaking thought out of her head, that a baby would have to sit in the same diaper for hours on end. A year later, with an infant of her own, she founded Sweet Cheeks Diaper Bank, distributing the first diapers out of her basement in April 2016. In her first year, she got over 150,000 diapers out to families in need. In 2020, that figure was 2.2 million.
More than just diapers
Fischer’s organization quickly outgrew her basement. In 2019, she moved operations to a 16,000-square-foot facility in Lower Price Hill. She now has five full-time employees, distributes more than 220,000 diapers a month, and has expanded services beyond diapers.
“I didn’t understand at the time that there are other personal hygiene products that aren’t covered beyond diapers,” Fischer says. “I quickly realized that pads and tampons fall into the same category.”
Thanks in part to corporate sponsorships by area businesses, Fischer began to help on that front with the creation of Tidal Babe Period Bank, which provides free pads, tampons, and menstrual cups in the community. Since the start of the program in 2019, more than 20,000 period kits have gone out the doors.
The organization has since restructured, with COVERD Greater Cincinnati the new name of the parent company, and the diaper bank and period bank programs under that umbrella. Fischer’s goal is to soon offer a third program that will supply adult incontinence products to seniors, adults and older children with disabilities, and older kids with regression due to trauma. Titled Fly & Dry Basic Needs Bank, this program has been successfully piloted, and Fischer and her staff are working this year on finding the support to make it sustainable.
Working through social service agencies
Both Sweet Cheeks and Tidal Babe are set up to work through area social service agencies that already have programs in place to help those in need. The agencies supply diapers, potty training kits, and period kits from COVERD as part of their services. This in turn provides an incentive for families to continue working through the agencies, many of which help families long after a baby has outgrown diapers.
Sweet Cheeks currently has 52 partner organizations, with another 30 on a wait list. Every Child Succeeds is one such organization. They work with new moms and their families to promote positive parenting and healthy child development before birth and during the first 1,000 days of life.
“When we first met with Megan, we were desperate,” says Pamela Wilz, program manager with Every Child Succeeds. “Our families are all at 200% of the federal poverty level or less. They lack a lot of resources, so they are struggling in many ways to begin with.”
Wilz says the pandemic has further increased the need for diapers among her clients. Many of them work in industries hit particularly hard by the pandemic. One client recently texted a thank you, expressing her gratitude for the program and the fact that it has removed a large financial hardship from her family over the last several months.
Counting on volunteers
It is grateful stories like those that drive the many volunteers who sign up each month to help out at Sweet Cheeks. The organization has their volunteer services down pat using an online calendar to offer signups for open sessions. They also coordinate group sessions that attract area businesses and schools.
“We are close to the point where we need 500 volunteer hours a month,” Fischer says. A partnership with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office fulfills some of those hours, where women inmates can get time off their sentences in exchange for volunteering.
Darryl Marsh of Pleasant Ridge has been helping out at Sweet Cheeks for the past four years. “Anyone who volunteers there will feel valued and will know they’re making an impact in our community,” he says. “The first thing they’ll want to know when they finish their shift is when they can come back.”
Lobbying for changes in legislation
Sweet Cheeks is part of the National Diaper Bank Network, which helps its network organizations fight for changes in law and policy to address diaper need. With a lack of government funding for these products, Fischer has found herself advocating for changes in legislation.
Her efforts have resulted in a victory on what’s often called the “pink tax” — sales tax on tampons and other feminine hygiene products. Fischer worked with the Junior League of Cincinnati at the state level to talk to legislators about the importance of repealing that tax. The bill passed in 2019 and sales tax on those products ended April 1, 2020, helping to make the products more widely available to those who need them.
COVERD’s board chair Eric Hamberg says ending period poverty and diaper need are the organization’s goals. “Keeping people healthy, and creating a mindset to stay healthy, is at the foundation of strong future generations,” he says.
Fischer claims a big part of the reason why the organization has been so successful is due to the resources in our region, including local businesses and donors, and foundation and grant support.
“Greater Cincinnati has a powerful community and we have so many resources here to succeed. Other organizations across the country don’t have the same type of access,” she says. “I’m grateful and happy that we are here and get to do this and that the community has embraced us.”
Interested in helping? Fischer emphasizes that they are always in need of both volunteers and donations. Learn more by clicking the links in the story.