Indiana University senior Mercedes Jones was just looking to fulfill a credit when she took on an internship working on a university food pantry initiative.
But what began as a frustrating college requirement quickly turned into a passionate mission: making sure no IU student goes hungry.
“At first, I felt it was a burden,” she said. “I was ticked off that I had to go find another internship; I just wanted to enjoy my summer. But that wasn’t part of my plan. I was glad I was given this opportunity to work on this project because it is something needed here at IU, and I hope others realize the importance of this issue.”
Jones, who is studying public management in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is leading the charge in the creation of a food pantry on campus. She spent the summer working with the Student Assistant Initiative, a group of faculty and staff that looks at financial barriers for students, to assess a need for a pantry. She also reached out to numerous universities who have food pantries on campuses.
She has secured a location — the first floor of Campus View — and has come up with a name: Crimson Cupboard. Jones is also working to make the pantry an official student organization and to secure student volunteers to run the pantry, which will serve only students in its first year.
Jones is also planning for funding and future donations to make the pantry a reality.
“The project wouldn’t be where it is if it wasn’t for Mercedes,” said Sally Jones, the director of IU Student Advocates Office who worked with Mercedes on her internship. “Any student could have come in and done the work that needed to be done, but she really owned this, and that made all the difference in the world.”
Although the pantry may be new, Mercedes Jones’ passion for helping others is not. The daughter of a minister, she grew up helping others. Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, the Jones family would make their way to the local homeless shelter to volunteer. Her father would also take his children to pick up hamburgers from the local McDonald’s to distribute to homeless people in their area.
When her father became ill during her freshman year, Jones felt the need to ensure his legacy of giving lived on.
“I got to IU and my dad got sick, and it got to the point where we thought he would pass away,” she said. “I felt like it was my time to take over what God had put on his heart and now put on mine.”
So Jones started feeding the homeless in Bloomington and eventually encouraged a handful of her friends to do the same. She also spent time donating food to local food pantries.
Then she found the internship that would bring the work she has been doing since she was a young child to the IU campus.
When it comes to college students and hunger, Jones said it can be difficult for them to admit they might not have money to eat. It can also be a struggle for people outside the university to understand that not all students are financially secure, she said, a stereotype she herself had until coming to college.
“I’ve never struggled,” she said. “I have never had to go without anything that I needed. I assumed all students are the same way, that all parents can support them. After my freshman year, I realized that is not the case at all.”
Although the logistics of starting a food pantry have been her main priority, Jones has also made it her mission to make sure the pantry is a place students will feel comfortable going to.
“Students are not going to just tell you they are hungry,” she said. “A lot of time they will not even tell their friends because they are embarrassed and ashamed and because of the stigma associated with a food pantry. We have to move away from that stigma or it will not be successful. Students need to know that they are welcomed and when they walk into the pantry they are going to get quality food.”
Although Jones’ internship ended in July, she is still leading the initiative, drumming up student interest, searching for funding and donations and spreading awareness not only about the pantry but about hidden hunger taking place on campuses throughout the country.
She is not stopping until there is a place all students can go to get a little help when times get rough.
“I feel like through this internship I truly fulfilled my purpose here at IU,” a tearful Jones said. “I can walk across the stage knowing I made a difference.
“Like I always tell people, the things I do is not so people can give me pats on the back. I do this because I want to, and I couldn’t imagine not being able to eat. I feel like if I have the ability and the work ethic and the drive to feed people, then I’m going to do whatever it takes to ensure this project gets done before I leave here.”