Babies and toddlers go through a lot of diapers. Maybe a dozen a day, depending on age and other circumstances. Typically, for three years.
For households already scrambling to pay for food and rent, buying disposable diapers -- at an average retail cost of 20 cents a diaper -- can be a prohibitive expense leaving infants and toddlers in wet and dirty diapers longer than is healthy.
And at day care centers, families must supply each day's worth of disposable diapers. That requirement has proven to be a barrier for some struggling parents, particularly single moms, who end up missing work or school instead.
That's why the Orange County Food Bank, which distributes a limited supply of donated diapers through a small network of community organizations, is leading an appeal for state funding to operate the county's first publicly-financed diaper bank.
The proposal asks for enough money -- $1.67 million -- to set up and operate a countywide diaper bank over the next two years. The money would be consistent with a 2018 appropriation for diaper banks in four other counties.
Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, calculates Orange County needs about 1.5 million diapers a year to help low-income families with infants and toddlers. On average, children are potty trained around the age of 3.
"Diapers are one of the most frequently requested, but least available, items at a food bank," Lowry said. "I've gotten so many calls over the decades from desperate mothers calling all over to find diapers."
Lowry said he encourages people asking for diapers to visit the food bank for groceries, along with tapping into other subsidy programs they might be eligible for, such as help in paying utility bills. That way, he reasons, they can use the freed-up cash on diapers.
Households that receive CalFresh benefits to buy food under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can not use that resource to purchase diapers. Neither does the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program provide diapers.
Under landmark legislation championed in 2017 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, parents in the state's CalWorks welfare-to-work program now automatically get a $30 a month "supportive services" payment to diaper each child 3 years and younger.
The CalWorks diaper benefit made California the first state in the nation to subsidize diaper purchases for struggling families.
Gonzalez spearheaded the $10 million diaper bank appropriation last year that is being evenly divided among Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco counties over a three-year period.
Gonzalez, who jokingly has called herself the "Diaper Queen" because of her focus on diaper need, also has tried for several years to win support for eliminating the sales tax on diapers. She estimates families could save an average $100 to $120 a year.
Gonzalez knows firsthand the challenges facing single moms. But she was galvanized by the findings of a 2013 Yale University study indicating one-third of low-income mothers could not afford an adequate supply of diapers for their children. Those moms also were more likely to suffer depression related to diaper need.
Gonzalez said the Orange County diaper bank proposal has her support. She also plans to continue work on the diaper tax -- something that would benefit not just families on aid, but the working poor and middle class families, she said.
"This is a priority for us statewide," Gonzalez said.
Any state measure to alleviate diaper need "is a question of budget priorities," Gonzalez said, but she added that the dynamics of child- and family-centered legislation have changed with the election of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
"We now have a governor who actually has a child in diapers."
Establishing a regional diaper bank here would allow OC Food Bank, a program of Community Action Partnership of Orange County, to join the National Diaper Bank Network of more than 200 members. That would allow the group to buy diapers in bulk, at a discounted price of 13 cents each.
Assemblyman Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, and Sen. Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, have co-authored a letter to the chairs of the budget committees in the state legislature's two chambers. Members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors also promise letters of support.
In addition, Lowry is reaching out to Orange County's business leaders, the faith-based community, child-care providers and educators, and the local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Community Action Partnership also launched a diaper bank-focused petition on Change.org.
So far, response has been positive, Lowry said: "It would be kind of hard to argue against diapers for babies from low income families."
He faces a deadline of Friday, April 26, to harness support. The California Legislature has until June 15 to pass a budget.
The $1.67 million Orange County seeks is equivalent to the balance of the $833,000 a year available to each of the four counties now getting diaper bank funding, Daly and Umberg point out in their joint letter.
In San Diego County, which started drawing on its diaper money in mid-January, distribution through the end of the three-year period is projected to exceed 14 million diapers, said James Floros, chief executive officer of Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank.
Floros said his food bank expects to have 75 distribution hubs in place by the fall, up from eight at the start of the year. Among those receiving free diapers are military families, a huge presence in the San Diego area because of Camp Pendleton.
"We knew there was a need," Floros said, "but we were blown away by the demand."
Lowry determined Orange County's need based on the number of WIC-eligible families with youngsters under 3. His formula looks like this: "46,294 infants x an average 9 diaper changes a day x 365 days a year = 152,075,790."
That doesn't include families that aren't eligible for WIC but are still needy, he said.
For now, the local supply of free diapers depends solely on the community's generosity.
Demand routinely outpaces supply. Last September, the Orange County Rescue Mission found itself in critical need of 40,000 diapers at its Village of Hope campus in Tustin to get through the end of the year.
A mom-and-pop nonprofit in Orange, Clear Charity, operates a diaper bank that relies on diaper drives and fundraisers to supply several thousand free and subsidized diapers purchased at reduced cost. Its Diaper Aid of Southern California program serves families in Orange County and other communities.
OC Food Bank stores about 750,000 boxed disposable diapers and 250,000 other baby hygiene products collected during HomeAid Orange County's annual "Essentials" drive and Builders for Babies competition in May and June. Those diapers go to homeless families in shelters supported by HomeAid and a few organizations in the food bank's network.
Said Lowry, "It's not a year-round service that benefits the entire community."
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