It has been a little over a year since the Crimson Cupboard food pantry opened on the IU Bloomington campus.
Since that time, Mercedes Jones, the director who helped make the pantry a reality has graduated and moved on from IU. But students like Erika Wheeler have taken up the charge and expanded the pantry to further address the issue of food insecurity both on campus and in the community.
“The reason I chose community health as my major is because of my interest in increasing food security,” said Wheeler, a senior in the School of Public Health-Bloomington and the executive director of Crimson Cupboard. “I believe food is a basic right, and there are far too many people going without it, needlessly. That is why Crimson Cupboard is so important to me and this campus.”
Wheeler has been a volunteer for the cupboard since its founding, previously working as the donations coordinator. Having experienced food insecurity after graduating from high school, and turning to a local pantry for help, Wheeler has worked as an advocate for the issue ever since.
Since taking over as executive director in May 2016, Wheeler turned her focus to sustaining enough donations to keep the pantry operating. She teamed with the Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard to become a member agency of the Hoosier Hills Food Pantry.
That partnership allowed the pantry to purchase supplies at a reduced price and to expand its clientele from the IU community to the Bloomington community at large. Wheeler also helped secure a Metz Grant from the IU Student Foundation to further secure the future of the pantry, and she has been working with Hilltop Garden and Nature Center to receive fresh vegetables from the garden.
Originally, the pantry served an average of 42 students per month. That number has greatly increased — from October to December 2016, the pantry helped feed almost 900 people. Wheeler has also increased the number of student volunteers who keep the pantry going.
Through her leadership, the pantry went from four volunteers to 20 active volunteers that includes mostly students, one community member and a few faculty members. The pantry also hosts a monthly Cooking with the Cupboard workshop that provides participants a quick cooking demonstration for easy-to-make meals and the ingredients to make such meals.
“Erika has been instrumental in both recruiting additional student volunteers and in expanding the scope of the pantry in terms of its mission, addressing food insecurity, the population served and resources available,” said Sally Jones, the director of IU Student Advocates Office. “I continue to be impressed by the energy, great ideas and enthusiasm of Erika and the student volunteers I meet.”
Wheeler and her staff’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, Crimson Cupboard received the collaboration award from Student Life and Learning and an honorable mention for new student organization of the year.
As she prepares to graduate in May, Wheeler said that being a part of the pantry has not only allowed her to fulfill her passion for making sure no one goes hungry but has given her purpose as a college student.
“Before getting involved with the Crimson Cupboard, I was just a student,” she said. “The extent of my campus experience was going to and from classes. Since working with the Crimson Cupboard, I have gone from student to student leader. Yes, I still have classes to worry about, but my experience is bigger than that now. I feel like I am part of a community, and that I am helping to make that community a better place through my work at the Crimson Cupboard.
More information about Crimson Cupboard, including a schedule, is available online. The pantry also has an upcoming Dine and Donate event at Aver’s East from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 26. The restaurant will donate 20 percent of all profits to the pantry, from customers who mention the Crimson Cupboard while dining.