There’s nothing particularly newsworthy about disposable diapers. For the parents of young children in daycare, they’re simply a necessity.
But for poor working parents who struggle to pay rent and put food on the table, pricey disposable diapers can also pose a challenge. This is the story of one young woman who met that challenge and has helped to provide nearly a quarter million diapers to Central Ohio moms and dads.
Iris Coker was born poor in what she describes as a ‘holler’ in West Virginia. With her parents, Coker eventually moved to Columbus where she encountered a few curves on the road to a better life.
“I had my daughter when I was 19 years old. I was going to school full-time and I was working full-time. And, um, it was hard,” Coker explained.
In time, Coker earned a college degree and landed a good job. But it wasn’t enough.
“I have lived it and I know how much the smallest thing can mean. $10 or $15 bucks for diapers may not seem like a lot for some people but that’s the difference between buying diapers and buying food for a lot of these families. If we can take that burden off of them for a little while, that’s worth it for me,” Coker said.
Along with The Columbus Coalition’s co-founder Lara Smith, and armed with research and tips from the National Diaper Coalition, Coker launched the Columbus Diaper Coalition two years ago. She started buying diapers and donating them to local food pantries. But it wasn’t long before the donations began rolling in.
“We had set up an Amazon Wish List and we got so many diapers just from that alone. I would come home every day to just boxes and boxes of diapers sitting on my front porch just waiting for me,” Coker said.
Coker stored them in her basement until the group was able to secure warehouse space in Franklinton. Now, donated Huggies and other disposables brands are stacked floor to ceiling before being repackaged in bundles of 30.
Coker says the coalition distributes free diapers through nine local food pantries. But she says they’re only reaching a small portion of the people in need.
“I don’t think that I realized exactly how big the need was here in Central Ohio. Our pantries right now that are the highest volume pantries are distributing 4,500 plus diapers a month. And, you know, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg,” Coker said.
Even though reusable cloth diapers could be a cheaper alternative in the long run, Coker says they aren’t an option for many people.
“Many of these families don’t have access to a washer and dryer or they’re sending their children to daycare. You can’t launder cloth diapers at a laundromat obviously for sanitary reasons. And many daycares won’t take cloth diapers,” Coker explained.
Of the 50 or so Food Pantries in Columbus, the Broad Street Food Pantry serves hundreds of families, like Southside resident Lori Burley.
Burley is pregnant. She already has five kids - two in diapers. The family gets two packs of disposables a week from the Broad Street Food Pantry. She estimates that saves her $30 to $40 dollars a week.
“Basically what I would have used on diapers, I use for bills and to get them clothes,” Burley said.
Kathy Kelly-Long runs the food pantry. Kelly-Long says before teaming up with the Diaper Coalition, the pantry purchased diapers from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. But she says sizes were limited. Now Kelly-Long says the pantry has more diapers to share.
“It also saves us, oh, probably about a couple thousand, three thousand dollars a year, probably more than that because we get a lot more from them than we ever ordered before, and that’s money we now use to purchase more food,” Kelly-Long said.
Iris Coker says she’d like to eventually expand the Diaper Coalition to include other personal hygiene products. But she says that’s down the road.