Packages of diapers are stacked at the Michael Klahr Jewish Family Services Diaper Bank on Dec. 23. The diaper bank is the only one in southern Maine and has seen a dramatic rise in need since the start of the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In the six years since the opening of southern Maine’s only diaper bank, the need has never been so high.

Over the past nine months, the Portland-based operation has distributed roughly 500,000 diapers to local families, a sharp increase from the nearly 300,000 it typically hands out each year.

“It’s crazy to me what diaper need in this community looks like right now,” said Karli Efron, who runs the Michael Klahr Jewish Family Services Diaper Bank. “The need has just grown exponentially since COVID started.”

Diaper banks have sprung up around the country in recent years, fueled by studies linking an inadequate supply of diapers to a range of short- and long-term health problems in children. The Portland effort is not the only one straining to keep up with demand as families can no longer afford to buy an adequate supply.

Infants require up to 12 diapers a day, while toddlers typically use around eight. For most families, that means the monthly cost for disposable diapers reaches $70 to $80.

Members of the National Diaper Bank Network are on track to distribute millions more diapers this year than ever before, with local diaper banks distributing an average of 50 percent more diapers each month. The need for diaper assistance is not expected to lessen any time soon.

Diaper need – the lack of a sufficient supply of diapers to keep a baby or toddler clean, dry and healthy – is a very real problem for many Americans, but is rarely talked about, according to health experts and advocates. And the problem has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has put more financial strain on already struggling families and periodically led to empty diaper shelves at stores.

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, 1 in 3 families in the United States report experiencing diaper need. Without clean diapers, babies are exposed to potential health risks such as infections and long-term effects of toxic stress; mother are at increased risk of maternal depression, and parents miss work if they cannot access child care because they can’t supply enough diapers. Researchers have even linked not having enough diapers with increased risk of child abuse as children are uncomfortable and families are stressed.

“It has very real and significant mental health impacts for an entire family, and all because you’re short three or four diapers over the course of the week,” Efron said. “For many parents, it leaves this sense of shame that they cannot provide this basic necessity for their children.”

There is little assistance available for parents who cannot afford to buy enough diapers. Assistance programs like SNAP and WIC don’t include money for diapers. Money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) could be used for diapers, but in Maine doing so would use up about 16 percent of the monthly benefit.

The Portland diaper bank is operated by the Michael Klahr Jewish Family Services, a nonprofit that serves those in need throughout southern Maine and is part of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine.

“When you look at how families can purchase diapers, much of the subsidies families are using don’t cover the cost of diapers. It’s a large expense for families,” said Louise Marsden, vice president of programs at The Opportunity Alliance, which partners with the diaper bank to distribute diapers to clients.

Joanne Samuel Goldblum, founder and CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network, said there have been unsuccessful attempts to include funding for diaper banks in federal stimulus packages this year. The push for more funding comes as diaper banks across the country report higher need as people lose income because of the coronavirus, she said.

“People don’t have the money they need for their basis necessities,” Goldblum said.

In May, Sen. Susan Collins joined a bipartisan group of senators who pushed for diaper assistance in COVID-19 relief packages. The relief law signed by President Trump does not include money for diaper banks.

“Diaper banks play a critical role in our communities by helping families keep their babies healthy and safe. These nonprofits distribute tens of millions of diapers annually, but the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have created unprecedented demand for these services,” Collins said in a statement. “Although the relief package that passed Congress (on Dec. 21) does include support for struggling families, including stimulus checks, supplemental unemployment insurance benefits, and nutrition and rental assistance, I will continue to push for additional support for diaper banks.”

The diaper bank in Portland was the first to open in Maine and become a member of the National Diaper Bank Network. The other diaper bank in Maine is the We Care Community Baby Center in Machias.

Efron, who is Michael Klahr Jewish Family Services director, had not thought about diaper need before talking with a pregnant woman at the food pantry.

“She said she didn’t know how she was going to pay for diapers. That’s when the lightbulb went off,” she said.

Efron said she finds many people have that lightbulb moment when they hear about the need for diapers in the community. She’s heard from parents who have improvised with newspaper or towels when they run out of diapers.

“Anyone who has a child in diapers realizes how essential that product is,” she said. “You can’t not have them.”

In its first year, the diaper bank handed out 16,000 diapers. The diaper bank typically provides 50 to 100 diapers per baby each month during monthly distributions. It also partners with about 15 agencies – including The Opportunity Alliance, food pantries and shelters – to get diapers to clients who need them.

At the next diaper distribution in January, Efron expects the diaper bank will serve 100 to 150 families. Since the start of the pandemic, the diaper bank has switched to a drive-thru model and has started doing deliveries for families who cannot get to the bank.

When the stay-at-home order was put in place in the spring, the food bank fielded calls from frantic parents who could not find diapers on store shelves because of panic buying, Efron said. She started getting more inquiries from parents interested in using cloth diapers. She offered cloth diapering 101 classes on Zoom for about 15 families who were able to make the switch from disposable diapers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, The Opportunity Alliance, the community action agency for Cumberland County, has seen an increase in clients who need help with basic necessities, including diapers, Marsden said. Between April and the end of September, the agency delivered 80,000 diapers to clients.

“If you were a family living in poverty prior to the pandemic, your situation has gotten vastly worse,” Marsden said. “For single mothers, the need for diapers is a very real thing.”

In January, the diaper bank partnered with MaineHealth, which asks parents during well visits if they have enough diapers. If the answer is no, the parent is given a package of diapers and a referral to the diaper bank.

Dr. Stephen DiGiovanni, a pediatrician and medical director at the Maine Medical Center Outpatient Clinics, said MaineHealth doctors are working to normalize screenings for diaper need by asking every parent if they have an adequate supply. They ask the same questions about food and can provide 1o-pound bags of food to patients who need it.

At the pediatric clinic where DiGiovanni works, 20 to 30 percent of families report they struggle to afford diapers, he said.

DiGiovanni said babies and toddlers face increased health risks and stress when parents have to leave them in a soiled diaper for too long. Research shows those babies are at greater risk of diaper rashes and urinary tract infections, which can have a snowball effect on a child’s long-term health.

A 2013 Yale study found that diaper need was more highly correlated with maternal stress and depression than any other stressor. Providing families with basic necessities like diapers can go a long way in reducing parental stress, a critical factor influencing child health and development, DiGiovanni said.

“It’s an incredible public health intervention,” DiGiovanni said. “If we can support the parents, they can best provide a strong environment for development and brain growth. Sometimes it’s the smallest things such as providing diapers that can help a family succeed.”


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