It’s a lovely Tuesday spring morning. Dr. Jessica Taylor sits in her office dressed in jeans and a brightly colored sweater with her hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail. She looks like an undergraduate student and for a moment it’s hard to believe she’s the Assistant Professor of Social Work, Counseling and Leadership at Northern Kentucky University. Bright pictures adorn the walls of her office and the comfortable armchairs around her desk look inviting. On her desk is a bag of Hershey’s kisses which she proffers with enthusiasm. “I always have chocolate with me,” she says, a warm smile lighting up her face. “It’s an icebreaker.” I settle into a comfy chair eager to learn about FUEL NKU, the food pantry founded and operated by Dr. Taylor and her colleagues, located on Northern Kentucky University’s beautiful campus.
Many years ago, on a fall morning in 2012, Dr. Taylor was teaching her usual undergraduate class on Social Welfare Policy. She looked around her classroom. She was well aware that Social Welfare Policy wasn’t necessarily the hottest topic in the world for a roomful of undergrad students. However, most of her students did seem hard at work that morning – sitting around tables, discussing the assigned readings and making notes. Her gaze wandered to Sarah Briggs, one of her sophomore students. Sarah sat at one of the tables, staring out of the window and seeming to have little to contribute to the activity around her. Dr. Taylor studied Sarah with concern. She had noticed a disturbing pattern in Sarah’s behavior lately – an inability to focus, engage or learn. Her participation level had dropped and some of her recent grades were starting to raise serious concerns. After class, Dr. Taylor met with Sarah to inquire if everything was okay. Sarah hesitated and then reluctantly admitted that she was struggling to pay her bills and often did not have money to buy food. Hunger left her unable to participate or learn.
The painful honesty of this conversation led to almost immediate action. As a social worker, Dr. Taylor wasted no time in making sure that Sarah quickly got access to food so she could be a better student. She stocked her office with non-perishables and snacks, not just for Sarah but others like her as well. “I cleared out some book shelves,” she says, pointing to baskets on some shelves. As word got around, more students started opening up to her about their struggle to make ends meet. “As the need grew, I was alarmed and shocked at how widespread the problem was,” Dr. Taylor admits. She soon learned that there were other faculty members at the university who were doing the same thing. Donations of food began to flow into the Social Work Department. It was time to find a dedicated space for the food and in June 2012 FUEL NKU opened its doors for the very first time. “What I did was not new,” Dr. Taylor admits. “I just coordinated an effort that was already going on to make it into something concrete.”
Today the pantry is centrally located on the NKU campus. It is open from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Dr. Taylor runs it with the assistance of her practicum students. The students work on the day to day management of the pantry and also take on special projects such as setting up its website, attending special events, or helping with grant writing.
FUEL NKU recently reached out to the Freestore Foodbank for support and assistance. “Initially we were too small for the Freestore Foodbank to help us in a material way,” Taylor comments. “However, as the pantry got bigger, we needed help and guidance and we were thankful to have the support of the Freestore Foodbank.” The Freestore Foodbank has helped to organize a fresh produce mobile pantry on campus once a month. Students and staff from NKU pick up fresh produce from the Freestore Foodbank’s Distribution Center at Wilder, KY to distribute on campus. “We get a wonderful variety of produce from the Freestore Foodbank – lettuce, tomatoes, onions, apples, oranges and even exotic and wonderful items like bok choy sometimes,” Taylor remarks. “This is something that our students look forward to greatly.”
Hunger on college campuses is a very real issue and the Freestore Foodbank is proud to partner with educational institutions such as Northern Kentucky University to ensure that this issue is resolved. The Surge Cupboard at Cincinnati State and Food for Thought at Gateway Technical and Community College are two other partner agencies to the Freestore Foodbank.
To support our efforts to solve hunger on college campuses, go to https://bit.ly/2HP3XSL