ORLANDO, Fla. – One of the largest universities in the country has created a system to distribute more than 245,000 pounds of food to students suffering from hunger and homelessness on campus.
"Students, they want to come here and get an education, but they might be struggling to just eat every day," said Ryan Calderon, a sophomore at University of Central Florida.
Calderon said he never even thought about food before college, and in his first year on campus had a dining plan.
"Then, after it just kind of crashed, and I was like this is nothing like home," Calderon said.
In his second year, the dining plan ended, Calderon moved off campus and used his scholarship money to pay rent. Even as he studied homelessness and nonprofit management, Calderon said he never considered himself in need.
"I knew that I'd go home and kind of like just want to sleep off the hunger, but I didn't really feel like I was part of that community," Calderon said.
That was until he found the Knights Helping Knights on-campus food pantry. For the last 10 years, students have been accepting and distributing food donations to ensure no students at UCF miss a meal.
Naseeka Dixon is the Knights Helping Knights Pantry manager. She said the whole operation began 10 years ago in a closet.
Last year, the pantry volunteers served more than 35,200 student visits with donated food, clothing and hygiene products.
Calderon said he found employment and no longer needs as much assistance from the pantry, and has decided to volunteer there.
"The fact that this hasn't been touched upon in colleges is crazy," Calderon said.
According to a 2018 study, 36% of students surveyed in 66 colleges struggle with food insecurity.
Dixon said other universities have started recognizing the need for on-campus food assistance, and she hopes Knights Helping Knights can be a model.
"I've seen people who are experiencing extreme hunger and homelessness who actually lived in the woods," Dixon said.
Last academic year, UCF graduated more than 7,000 Pell-eligible students, and 72% of undergrads receive financial aid.
Calderon called Knights Helping Knights a movement. After graduation he plans to continue the fight to end hunger and homelessness in schools.
"I want people to feel more comfortable when it comes to this topic because we're all struggling, and it is a real issue," Calderon said.
Food and donations are collected by Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, the UCF Arboretum, and several community partners.