Naseeka Dixon remembers grocery shopping at a food pantry, especially one at a local church, with her family as a young girl.
At age 7, Dixon, her sister and her mother emigrated from Jamaica to Port St. Lucie, Florida, after her father died. In pursuit of a fresh start and more economic opportunities, the Dixon family felt a move was in their best interests. The journey wasn’t easy, though.
“My mom was a single mother of two. We looked into government food stamps, local food banks, and other resources around the community, like after-school programs for me and my sister so my mom could work,” says Dixon.
Her mother eventually landed a job in the nursing field after taking time to study and pass the certified nursing assistant test. After more time, she was able to buy a house. But without those community resources to help in the interim, she says the family would have struggled.
Dixon was faced with food insecurity once again when she moved to Orlando to study at UCF. She was fortunate to have landed enough scholarship money to cover her tuition and most of her room and board, but had little to no extra money for anything else. That’s when Dixon turned to a food pantry again — this time, the Knights Helping Knights Pantry on UCF’s main campus.
“Food was a low priority for me, in terms of what I could spend my money on. The pantry became a great source of food at the time.” — Naseeka Dixon
“Food was a low priority for me, in terms of what I could spend my money on. The pantry became a great source of food at the time,” she says.
The Knights Helping Knights Pantry started as a grassroots initiative by a group of students more than 10 years ago to help fellow students have access to free food during times of hardship. The pantry began in a closet in the Student Union, and now resides in a 1,867-square-foot suite because of the growing demand. In 2019 alone, students visited the pantry more than 42,400 times and more than 70,000 pounds of food were distributed. Students are allowed to take up to five food items daily, plus clothing or toiletry items with no questions asked.
Food insecurity on college campuses has grown into a national concern during the years, with a 2018 study finding that 36 percent of students surveyed from 66 colleges and universities do not get enough to eat.
Dixon, who will graduate May 2 with undergraduate degrees in legal studies and political science and a minor in nonprofit management, felt the work to combat food insecurity was so impactful that she went from being a client of the pantry to its paid manager in May 2018. She earned her spot through work with Volunteer UCF, a student organization dedicated to promoting community-service opportunities, and through part-time work at the Student Union, which oversees the pantry.
In just two years, Dixon has helped the pantry evolve to more than just an emergency food pantry, but to a resource that helps meet more needs of students, even before they’re in dire situations.
“We want students to know you don’t have to be on the verge of starving to benefit from the pantry,” says Jeannie Kiriwas, associate director of event services at the Student Union. “Naseeka has helped change the perception of the pantry. For years we’ve been hearing from students they don’t come to the pantry because they still have a little bit of money left. We want them to know they don’t have to spend their last dollar on food — we’re here to help.”
“Naseeka has helped change the perception of the pantry. For years we’ve been hearing from students they don’t come to the pantry because they still have a little bit of money left. We want them to know they don’t have to spend their last dollar on food — we’re here to help.” — jeannie Kiriwas, UCF associate director of event services
Under Dixon’s leadership, new partnerships have been established and existing ones have expanded. For instance, Walmart now donates household items, and through Student Government, gently used blazers are available for rent at the pantry for presentations or job interviews. Dixon also established a partnership with Bread for the World, an organization that helps spread awareness of how wealth gaps impact food insecurity. An existing partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, the pantry’s biggest provider, expanded to also offer frozen-food items to students.
In her final weeks at the pantry, Dixon has been helping organize, pack and distribute to-go bags with food and toiletry items for students in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 700 bags have been given to students for free through a curbside pickup.
After graduation, Dixon will work with Straight Street, a nonprofit that helps care for the poor and homeless in Orlando. She intends on applying for graduate school, either in nonprofit management or law school to study immigration law.
“Naseeka knows the impact this work has on people, and how this is a resource made by people,” says Kiriwas. “She set that as the tone for the pantry and how it operates, and I know she’ll continue to set that as her first priority in all she does.”