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NIU Huskie Food Pantry tries to keep the shelves stocked

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The pandemic made food insecurity an even bigger hardship for many people in Illinois. For college students, it can be difficult to find resources so far from home. The Huskie Food Pantry at Northern Illinois University is striving to be that resource.

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Edwin Kelso and Tashara Thomas recycle boxes used for the NIU Huskie Food Pantry

Most college students dread 8 a.m. classes. But on a recent Wednesday morning, Tashara Thomas rolls a cart filled with empty cardboard boxes to a large recycling bin.

Thomas is a nutrition and dietetics major at NIU. She’s also on the student leadership team at the Huskie Food Pantry.

“The pantry is support,” Thomas said. “I feel like a lot of students who come here are truly struggling with their food security. So having the pantry here is just like another resource to support them.”

She helps organize volunteer students as they unload and stock the shelves. The goal is to help students focus on their education instead of when they will get their next meal. It’s currently open two shifts per week during the fall semester.

English and philosophy major, Edwin Kelso is also on the student leadership team.

He says the experience has taught him a variety of skills.

“I've definitely learned conflict resolution and time management skills," Kelso said. "I don't really have any early classes so it's definitely just taught me how to get up out of bed and come help out.”

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Jeanne Baxter trains student volunteer Justin Achana

Jeanne Baxter is the assistant director of the Huskie Food Pantry. She says COVID has taken a toll on student stress levels and mental health.

“We're just making an extra effort to really have an engaging environment where we're not only serving them and letting them have access to free food, but we're also a listening ear for our students,” Baxter said.

Madilyn Perez is an alumni of NIU and currently with AmeriCorps. For her, volunteering is personal.

“As a student who actually used the food pantry when I was a student, it just meant so much to be able to admit to myself that I needed that support and that help from my community,” Perez said.

She wants the experience to be as comfortable as possible for the students.

“I've learned a lot of trauma-informed care," Perez said. At a first glance, you're just helping students who are coming in, but there's a lot of work that goes into making sure that the patrons of the pantry are comfortable."

Paddy McKermitt is on the baseball team and is studying management. In addition to volunteering at the pantry, he says the food can be a big support.

“I have a single family household so that extra boost of groceries really helps me,” McKermitt said.

He says the pantry also highlights generosity within the NIU and DeKalb-area community.

“You can see the donors -- how willing they are to give, not just food but school supplies and Jeanne [Baxter] the way she runs it. She's just so open and so welcoming to everybody that volunteers and comes in,” McKermitt said.

Baxter says the pantry is in need of more donations and volunteers.

Demand is so high that they have added more hours.

“One of the challenges that we have is that we work with no budget," Baxter said. "We completely rely on student volunteers, we completely rely on the generosity of our alumni and the community has done food drives. We are working hard to bring in more money to support the pantry to connect with donors that are interested in supporting our efforts.”

The Huskie Food Pantry accepts donations at its location inside the Chick Evans Field House and financial donations online through the NIU Foundation. Pantry hours and information on how to volunteer are available at the Huskie Food Pantry’s website.