UNK’s Big Blue Cupboard helps students in need.
Luis Olivas knows the contours of Grand Central Apple Market well.
He’s learned who the quickest baggers are and who will point out active markdowns.
Rolling through checkout with 45 TV dinners or enough produce to comfortably feed a residence hall typically elicits a second glance, a probing question or two.
Olivas has grown accustomed to the attention. One of his responsibilities as diversity coordinator in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is to keep the Big Blue Cupboard stocked. So as the coronavirus emptied businesses throughout the country, Olivas was still making biweekly speed-runs through the grocery store, filling his cart with peculiar quantities of food.
Hundreds of students rely on the Big Blue Cupboard — and, in turn, Olivas — whether learning is remote or not. To keep the cupboard operational during the spring, Olivas alternated shifts with Juan Guzman, director of the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.
Both were first-generation, Latino college students who earned associate degrees at Central Community College before attending and serving UNK.
“We have many immigrant and international students as well as refugee and asylum-seeking students,” Olivas said. “Thus, it’s super important for them to be able to see somebody that has been in their shoes to not only create empathy but also to be able to relate on a personal level.”
As an undergraduate student, when Guzman returned to Kearney from weekend trips home to Grand Island, he made sure to have meals in tow.
He vividly remembers the hunger that comes from prioritizing tuition or rent as a month winds to a close. And he remembers the strength of a community that lifts each member in times of need.
“Juan is a big inspiration to UNK students and the UNK community,” said Sergio Ceja, a Loper graduate who’s currently studying at the University of Alabama.
Olivas said, “He’s one of the university’s biggest assets. If it wasn’t for him, dozens if not hundreds of students wouldn’t have been able to come to college or realize their full potential.”
Nineteen years after Guzman arrived at UNK, his most indelible marks can be found in a quiet corner on the first floor of the student union.
After watching a conference presentation on food insecurity, Guzman vowed to bring a food pantry to his alma mater. The Big Blue Cupboard opened in April 2012 and has since served thousands of students, staff and community members, with an average of 1,200 food and hygiene items distributed each month.
“We have many students from different backgrounds, so we always make sure to have certain ingredients, to make sure we meet those cultural needs,” Guzman said.
Students can use a mobile app to shop for items, which in turn helps employees learn the diet of the student body. And understanding that audience is paramount.
“We can have 5,000 creamed corn cans in there,” Olivas said, “but that doesn’t mean students are going to take them.”
That the cupboard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of campus isn’t by accident. Stigmas can turn hungry students away, so Guzman was careful in the planning phase to mitigate this issue.
Even as students left campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Guzman and Olivas saw an immediate uptick in demand, with more than 1,000 items leaving the shelves over a single week. Frozen meals went especially fast, as daily food trips were suddenly questionable. So Guzman and Olivas submitted a request for a second deep freezer.
Approval was granted within five minutes.
“We can’t say enough about the leadership here,” Guzman said.
Shortly after Chancellor Doug Kristensen announced that in-person classes would be suspended, he raised an additional $10,000 for the cupboard in private donations.
“Putting food on the tables of students is the most fundamental thing I can do to help,” Kristensen said.
Kristensen has led UNK for nearly two decades. Campus support for The Big Blue Cupboard is on the short list of what makes him most proud.
“When you watch our students give their own time and money to go out and serve those meals, I’ll remember that for a very long time,” he said.
Stepping into the unknown was an on-the-fly exercise for everyone, Guzman said, but it was deftly navigated, from the top down.
Speaking on the phone at the cupboard, Olivas said, “Even though most of our students may not physically be here, they know that we as staff and faculty are 100 percent there for them. That connection has not been lost.”
The cupboard is home to a thousand ingredients and two eternal vows:
No student should go hungry.
What’s mine is yours.
“I feel like that sets UNK and the University of Nebraska system apart: Even though our buildings may be closed, the learning is still happening,” Olivas said. “Those students are still being provided for. They are still safe.”