Free diaper program means one less worry for low-income parents

“Diapers are not cheap. … The cost of a diaper for us was $47 for one box.”

For Darius Noriega, becoming a foster parent gave him the hope he needed after losing his mother less than a year ago. But financial hardship brought on by the pandemic made it difficult to afford even the most basic necessities, such as diapers and clothing for his little one.

That was until he found out about San Francisco’s free Diaper Bank, which offers eligible families up to about 250 diapers per month depending on size.

“Diapers are not cheap. Even when I grew up in the Philippines, having diapers was a privilege,” said Noriega, who lives in Pacifica and is a foster parent to an infant from San Francisco. “Now, we don’t have to worry about budgeting for diapers or worry about our child. It gives us peace of mind.”

The program has been a lifeline for parents like Noriega, whose wife lost her job working at the retailer Forever 21 in December 2019. The store never reopened even after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

The family was able to access health care through Medi-Cal, but they didn’t qualify for programs like food stamps because Noriega earned above the minimum income threshold.

But even for those who do qualify, federal and state public assistance programs like food stamps do not cover diapers, which can run $80 to $100 per month on average for many families. Newborn infants can require up to 12 diapers a day.

For low-income families struggling to make ends meet in pricey San Francisco, the high cost could mean choosing between transportation expenses, putting food on the table or other essential needs.

“It is such a big help to not worry about things. The cost of a diaper for us was $47 for one box,” said Noriega. “Here in California, everything is expensive. You have to budget every penny, not every dollar. This gives us a lot of leverage in considering what we have to buy.”

Key to health

Providing babies with clean diapers is vital for infant and family health. Remaining in dirty or reused diapers for an extended period can lead to health issues such as frequent diaper rash, urinary tract infections and broader impacts on the mental well-being of children and their parents.

It’s also part of keeping families on track with work, school and other responsibilities. Some childcare centers require parents to supply diapers for children, which can keep families from being able to send their kids on days when they have run out of diapers.

More than 50% of families needing support to pay for diapers said they missed an average of four days of work or school per month due to needing diapers for their child, according to data from the National Diaper Bank Network, , a research and advocacy organization founded in 2011.

Expanded program

This month, San Francisco’s Diaper Bank expanded eligibility to families on Medi-Cal, nearly doubling the program’s capacity to reach 6,400 families. Parents and caregivers with children under the age of 3 who participate in the state’s food stamp program, CalFresh, as well as the family public assistance program CalWORKs, were previously made eligible.

A partnership between San Francisco and the local nonprofit Help a Mother Out, the Diaper Bank operates similar to a food bank by distributing free diapers to low-income families across The City. The program distributes at nine locations with varying hours, which can be found here.

Noriega started his visits two months ago after a social worker tipped him off to the program. At the Diaper Bank, he can find diapers as well as lightly worn children’s clothes and other recycled baby items. He’s also met other parents who can uniquely understand his situation, like a mother who also hails from the Philippines and visits the Diaper Bank on the same days as Noriega’s family.

“As soon as I got there, there was a sense of connection and cultural diversity. That’s a big deal for us. From an immigrant perspective, we are culturally connected to it and it gives us a sense of community,” said Noriega.

“When we pick up the diapers, my wife stays in the car and asks what takes me so long. I’m having good conversation with other parents who pick up the diapers,” Noriega said laughingly. “You have no idea how much this helps.”

Across California, 19 diaper banks distribute approximately 39 million diapers annually, serving 65,000 children, according to the National Diaper Bank Network. San Francisco was the first to have a county-funded diaper bank, and after the recent expansion is the first to provide all families who rely on public benefits with free diapers.

Pandemic surge

Part of the rationale for growing the program came from a surge in need during the pandemic when many young parents lost jobs or were unable to work due to the risk of infection.

“Around June 2020, The City saw a huge increase in client enrollment for CalFresh. Families that would have never signed up were doing it. We already had the distribution partners, so all we had to figure out was how to get more diapers to our partners,” said Lisa Truong, who co-founded the nonprofit Help a Mother Out that runs San Francisco’s Diaper Bank.

The most recent expansion of the program builds off of the work funded by a $2.5 million state grant that allowed the program to expand to families on food stamps in 2019. The Medi-Cal expansion will be funded through a blend of those existing program funds and funding from The City’s Human Services Agency.

Having a stronger footing on basic needs has allowed Noriega and his wife, who also have two older children, to commit to a lifetime with their foster baby.

“We are now transitioning from fostering to adoption,” he said. “Everyone was asking, ‘How can you do that? Your kids are all grown up, you’re supposed to enjoy life.’ Well, I lost my mom last year, and I’ve been to a couple of dark places. When we had our foster child, it took out all the dark clouds in my life. Our baby is our lucky charm, our sunshine.”

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