How one campus food pantry is fueling the fight against hunger

JasmineWhite Jasmine White | Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

"These students want to be here… but they’re hungry. The hardship they’re willing to endure for the sake of bettering their lives is just breathtaking.”

By Brent Donaldson
NKU Marketing + Communications

Karen White had always told her two kids that she put their needs first. But it still shocked Jasmine the day her mom revealed what those words actually meant. “One day,” Jasmine remembers, “my mom said, ‘When there wasn’t enough food, I gave it to you and your brother so you could eat.’” 

Today, Jasmine is 24 and close to graduating from NKU with a degree in Theatre. She anticipates moving someday to California or New York or maybe Chicago to kick-start her career. But she still has a full semester of classes before that happens, and she still anticipates dealing with the same challenge she’s faced for a long time: finding enough to eat.

Jasmine is one of dozens of students this year who will frequent FUEL NKU—Northern Kentucky University’s free food pantry program—to make sure they don’t go hungry. To use the service, students simply visit the pantry, show their student ID, sign a form, then fill up a bag with food and toiletries, free of charge. Jasmine says discovering FUEL changed a lot of things for her as a student.

“It makes me feel crazy when I don’t have anything to eat,” she says. “I don’t have much cash and there’s only so much that my mom can do. I don’t like to ask her too much because it makes me feel guilty, so I try to manage. But by using FUEL, I don’t worry as much. Sometimes I get a little, sometimes I get a lot.”

FUEL NKU is both a food pantry and a community fight against hunger. Its shelves of food and essentials provide nutritional assistance and other useful items to students in a compassionate, confidential, and safe environment. There is also a FUEL NKU board of directors as well as a student organization that meets regularly, purchases food, stocks the shelves, and “advertises” the program through flyers and social media.

But when the shelves go bare, there isn’t much to advertise. That’s why FUEL NKU needs donations from the campus community—especially around the holidays.

It’s a common misperception to think that hunger doesn’t exist on college campuses. But Dr. Jessica Taylor knows better.   

“I know that we all walk uphill both ways in the snow, but I have students come in with shaking hands who say they haven’t eaten in several days,” she says. “And that’s not acceptable to me.”

Taylor, an assistant professor in NKU’s Department of Counseling, Social Work, and Leadership, started FUEL NKU back in the fall of 2013 with one shelf of food in her office that she made available to a student who was going hungry. Three years later, that one shelf has turned into a multi-tiered program that assists dozens of students every week. FUEL NKU is today widely recognized as a model for other universities—almost all of which face similar issues.

“Universities are trying to include a more diverse student body,” Taylor says, “and I mean diversity across a range of possibilities. That means that we are intentionally recruiting and pulling in and encouraging students who a generation ago would not have even been able to access college. These students want to be here; they’re trying to be here. But they’re hungry. The hardship they’re willing to endure for the sake of bettering their lives is just breathtaking.”

Cheyenne Meredith knows something about that. Cheyenne used to hitch rides on freight trains (one of her tattoos honors the Guildford Rail System, now known as Pan Am Railways) and spent most of the past several years living on the streets. She’s rarely stayed in one city longer than two weeks and has had run-ins with the law. Cheyenne, 25, now lives in sober housing off campus and is working toward a degree in Spanish. She’s learning a new language and a new way of living.

Cheyenne says that FUEL can help students for whom hunger is the one big barrier to succeeding in school. “A hungry belly is a hungry belly no matter how much money you do or don’t have,” she says. Hunger has been “ingrained” in her, she says, ever since her early adulthood. And FUEL is part of why she’s calling NKU home after so many years without one.

Dr. Jessica Taylor

Cheyenne Meredith | Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko

How to Support FUEL NKU

NKU’s food pantry needs your help to keep its shelves stocked for students. Here’s how and where to donate.

Location: University Center, Room 142

Hours: Monday and Thurday, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. or by appointment through fuel@nku.edu

Commonly needed items:

  • Peanut butter
  • Cereal
  • Canned meats
  • Dry pasta
  • Rice
  • Canned fruit
  • Toothpaste
  • Toilet paper
  • Snacks (granola bars, crackers, etc.)

How to Donate:

  • Donate at the pantry, or at the box located in the Student Union or the bin in MEP, room 222G.
  • Email FUEL@nku.edu for pickup
  • Monetary donations are accepted through the NKU Foundation, available, here.
    • To donate to FUEL NKU, specify that you would like your donation to directly benefit FUEL NKU, fund #0733209100.
  • Hosting a food drive?
    • Contact FUEL@nku.edu, and they’ll bring donation bins and FUEL NKU flyers to you, then pick up the bins when the drive is over.

“I’m part of something now, and that’s good,” she says. “I have mentors. I need to be here. This is what ties me to the community and keeps me from running off and doing what I did before.”

Dr. Taylor says that FUEL NKU owes its success to the support it’s received from that same campus community. “We exist completely on donations and partnerships with foodbanks. So, I am constantly begging, and every time I send out a call, people respond,” she says. “The College of Education and Human Services have been amazing. And the College of Business steps up on a regular basis. I will receive emails from them that say, ‘Hey, we did a fundraiser and raised money. When can we bring it to you?’

“It’s wonderful. I can be walking across campus and have someone walk up and hand me $20 for the pantry. The generosity is outstanding. I know I sound so much like a social worker, but it renews my faith in humanity on a regular basis. I see so many hungry students, and it’s easy to become disheartened. But we haven’t forgotten them at NKU.”