Updated: Apr 6, 2020
Story by Sydney Wade | Photos by Isaac Janssen
Taking a step into the Big Blue Pantry, visitors will find aisles of canned goods and toiletries. And they’ll find sophomore Izzy Thomas.
Thomas is the director of the Big Blue Pantry, created in 2014 to allow students experiencing food insecurity or hunger at the university to be able to show a valid UK ID to receive food, canned items, toiletries, and other goods at no cost to them. Thomas is also an education ambassador about food insecurity. She is involved with the Basic Needs Campaign and SSTOP Hunger, which led her to become director of the pantry.
“I’m only at the Big Blue Pantry to stock and clean, and all the other time is spent meeting with my advisor, Program Specific Executive Team (PSET), doing interviews, volunteer orientations, and also doing promotion for the pantry like Big Blue Harvest, where I give out small snacks to students in the morning to spread the word about Big Blue Pantry,” Thomas said. Then she laughed, as she realized she does more than the average person does in a day.
The pantry is a student-led organization. Thomas works with an advisor and the PSET team to manage the overall operations of the pantry. There are also federal work-study student volunteers who help with stocking and other needs.
Over the past five years, the pantry’s trajectory has shifted from a small, unknown space in Whitehall Classroom Building to a bustling resource center for students, with its partnership with Kroger. Since 2014, they have tripled in numbers, currently serving about 100 people per week.
The Basic Needs Campaign began as a call to action about food insecurity on Kentucky’s campus, leading to a hunger strike by participants who felt their voices weren’t being heard in spring 2019. While Big Blue Pantry wasn't directly involved, Thomas and her team were individually passionate about the issues related to the campaign and jumped in swiftly. Thomas completed five days of the hunger strike.
“I feel Big Blue Pantry was almost seen in a negative light through the Basic Needs Campaign, and that was never our intention as individuals,” she said.
As those feelings begin to fade away, Thomas said she sees new beginnings for the pantry, with a transition from a grassroots, student-led organization to more corporate. As a result of the Basic Needs Campaign, Arion Jett-Seal— UK’s first basic needs coordinator— will be taking over Big Blue Pantry in fall 2020.
For Thomas, working in the food insecurity crisis on campus was familiar territory. At one point, she experienced food insecurity. Storehouse, now the biggest food pantry in the southwest in her native New Mexico, helped her family through a major financial shift when she was 13 years old, helping them with resources and getting them back on their feet.
Thomas started volunteering there, and once she was able to drive, she found herself at Storehouse more than ever. Through the pantry, she created a student ambassador position where she was able to go around to middle and high schools to talk about Storehouse and food insecurity while learning about it herself.
Upon turning 17, Thomas created Izzy’s Hike for Hunger through Storehouse. She established the fundraiser during a low point in life, with an end to her dreams of being a Division I soccer player. After quitting the team, she began to hike, and an idea dawned on her. From there, she introduced the idea of a hiking fundraiser for Storehouse, and many people thought she was crazy. Never backing down from a challenge, this was the only fuel she needed.
Thomas wanted her fundraiser to fill in the gaps during the summer when Storehouse patrons needed extra assistance because they were not receiving free lunch at school, or when the pantry was not receiving as many donations as around the holidays.
Since its creation in 2017, Izzy’s Hike for Hunger raised over $5,000, and she has signed a contract with Storehouse to continue her fundraiser while she’s away at school.
Thomas plans to pursue medicine as a career but also plans on continuing her work with the Storehouse. She is also interested in advocating for lower-priced pharmaceuticals and natural remedies.
She emphasized being naturally engaged in food, and that combating food insecurity is so important.
“Food is such a central part of people’s lives,” she said. “A woman whose whole family died started coming into Storehouse because she fell into depression and lost her job… She was able to get a job and revamp her life,” through Storehouse.
Thomas talked of seeing families fall into many different circumstances, like divorce, which she feels could’ve been prevented by having a meal together.
“Because of this centralized factor of food, that people don’t have food, or don’t have adequate nutrition, has always affected me,” she said.
Thomas said people need to realize that they see and know people every day who are insecure.
“Recognizing that and being able to really visualize, whether it be through a presentation or a blurb in class, or just talking about it with friends is the best way to learn about it,” she said. “I think the goal to keep in mind is no judgment, just food.”