Why Elizabeth’s a Hawk to Watch:
Despite being readily available for some, access to healthy food remains out of reach for many families across the U.S. In Douglas County alone, 19,000 residents are at risk of hunger. So Elizabeth Keever and her dedicated team of staff and volunteers at the nonprofit food bank Just Food are on a mission to combat food insecurity, one meal at a time.
Located just northeast of 11th and Haskell in Lawrence, Just Food collaborates with community partners to reduce hunger, cultivate self-sufficiency, and empower all community members to live healthy, happy lives. And through tireless collective effort, the relatively small organization is making a major impact. Now approaching their tenth year, Just Food serves over 9,000 residents each month. That’s 150-200 families each day!
As a political science major at KU, Elizabeth, who now serves as Just Food’s executive director, learned how community members’ lives are shaped by public policy. And when she came across a job opening at the nonprofit, then looking to hire their second staff member, she saw a perfect opportunity to personally make an impact on her community through on-the-ground work and building strong relationships.
Whether you’re passionate about service in your community, looking to get involved, or searching for ways to apply your talents to a cause that matters, the story of Elizabeth’s journey is sure to offer food for thought.
Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:
I lead an organization with the mission of ending hunger in our community by increasing access to healthy foods, reducing barriers to health and well-being, and cultivating self-sufficiency. My daily tasks include developing and implementing our strategic plan and fundraising efforts, providing community outreach, and overseeing the operations of the organization.
How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?
I had the opportunity to be Senator Marci Francisco’s intern in the Kansas Senate during my senior year and worked with the staff of the Kansas Democratic Party (KDP) during that time. The KDP offered me a job and I started working as the Director of Operations for the Kansas Democratic Party the day after I walked down the hill with a degree in Political Science from KU. The position was an incredible and unforgettable experience for a new graduate, providing me with skills I continue to use when fundraising and advocating for progressive social policies. After the 2012 election, I wanted to make a change and work for an agency providing direct service to those in need, and I saw an opening at Just Food. At the time it was a small, developing nonprofit looking to hire their second staff person. When I saw how my work could personally impact my community I knew it was the right place for me.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?
When I started at Just Food in 2013, we were a staff of two and had a relatively small annual operating budget. We were a modest organization with strong community support and committed volunteers. Over the years, the organization has gone through a number of hurdles and hardships, but the needs of those experiencing food insecurity remains our top priority.
When I took over as Executive Director in 2015, I knew that the growth of the organization was essential to our mission of serving the community. Now, as the organization approaches its 10-year anniversary, I am proud to say that we are a thriving, local nonprofit serving thousands annually with a staff of seven. In the past six years, we have increased access to our food pantry by 252%, increased the amount of food we distribute by 355% and have grown our annual operating budget by 275%. Ultimately, this means that more people in Douglas County have access to healthy food and programs that cultivate self-sufficiency than ever before. Honestly, it feels incredible to lead our dedicated team of volunteers, staff, donors, and board members who have helped to make the organization what it is today.
What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?
In 2015, the Just Food Board of Directors and I discovered financial misconduct and embezzlement perpetrated by the Executive Director. This discovery and the subsequent removal of the existing leadership put the organization into a precarious position. The Just Food staff and board were tasked with some daunting responsibilities; to raise enough capital to cover the stolen funds, and to regain the trust of our community. At the time, there was a distinct possibility that we would be forced to close our doors and the fear of not being available for those families in need was unnerving.
We worked tirelessly to develop a plan to move past this ordeal, and I was given the honor of stepping up as Executive Director. I was fortunate to have the incredible support from my family, who lifted me up when I was struggling, and gave me the confidence I needed to lead. I found strength in the Just Food staff, volunteers, and board members, who never stopped working towards our mission and always believed that we could succeed. And finally, I was inspired by a community that believed that everyone deserves access to healthy food. Through this combined effort, Just Food weathered the storm, and emerged stronger than ever.
What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?
There are things that you learn in college that, at the time, don’t seem to have any practical, real- world application. I would tell myself to get rid of those doubts, and to absorb as much as you can, as there are times when that knowledge does have a use. I’ve pulled more from my time at KU than I ever realized I would while in school, and I deeply value all that I’ve learned.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
In 10 years, I hope to be in a position where I can use my knowledge and skills to enact meaningful change in my community. Whether it’s a leadership role at a nonprofit organization, or holding office in local politics, I know that I will be serving my community and giving a voice to those in need.
What’s your best career pro-tip?
My best advice is to advocate for yourself, and use positions of leadership and privilege to advocate for others. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to network; you never know how the people you meet can impact your future.
How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?
In my political science classes, I learned how policy is created, and how it can shape the lives of those who fall under its purview. As the key communicator on behalf of an organization, I am constantly using the skills I developed through the essays and papers I wrote for each class. As I stated before, I was fortunate to be an intern at the Kansas State House in my senior year, and I received real-life work experience that gave me the opportunity to network with people in the industry.
What do you do after you’ve clocked out?
In my early years as a KU student, I enjoyed electives centered around metalsmithing and jewelry making. I continue to enjoy creating jewelry in my downtime, along with spending time with my family and friends, watching television, and playing board games.
What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?
Growing up in Texas I played tennis and competed in it one year. I made it all the way to state and placed 3rd. Fortunately for me, there were only 3 people in my age bracket.
Be like Elizabeth. Find ways to make a difference for a cause you believe in. For more information, visit the department of Political Science at the University of Kansas, and learn more about Just Food here. Do you need food? Explore resources through Just Food and the KU Campus Cupboard.
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