Hunger is a problem on a Tacoma college campus. Two students devised a solution

The News Tribune

What began as a class project for two Tacoma Community College students has turned into a permanent resource for hungry students at the two-year school.

The TCC Food Pantry opened Sept. 24. Shelves hold canned tuna, bags of grain, granola bars and other items.

It’s the brainchild of Ashley Ngo, 24, and Maylonnai Harris, 27.

They were in professor Rob Olsen’s business class in early 2017 when he told them that businesses solve problems. What problems did his students want to solve?

Harris and Ngo had a quick response: hunger. Not world or national hunger, but hunger at TCC.

Through their research, they found that 65 percent of TCC students had considered dropping out of college to get jobs in order to provide basic household necessities, like food. Additionally, 60 percent said they had to skip meals due to lack of finances.

“After that first survey, that’s when my eyes opened,” Ngo said. “I realized there was a great need for this. We have to make this happen.”

The pantry was a long term project for Ngo and Harris. The pair continued to work on it after graduating from the school in June 2017. What began as academic quickly became personal.

“Growing up, we were very, very poor,” Harris said of her Tacoma family. They relied on resources like food banks.

Ngo approached the project from a more scholarly perspective. But that changed when she realized how many students were going hungry every day.

“It became really personal for me,” Ngo said.

Olsen helped Harris and Ngo develop a business plan, seek funding and navigate campus politics.

They recruited help from other business students to conduct research on 1,000 of their fellow students. Faculty, staff and donors worked to make the project a reality.

The goal is to serve 3,000 students per year, Olsen said. In coming years, the plan is to add perishables.

Nourish Pierce County, formerly Fish Food Banks, is helping with both food and logistics.

The TCC Foundation has secured more than $100,000 in donations from individuals and corporations to get the pantry up and running.

In its first three days of existence, the Max & Margi Harned Titan Food Pantry has served 50 students, said Ben McLean, the food pantry coordinator.

The food pantry fills a large former storeroom in a campus building.

Feeding the hunger

Telling others that you need food isn’t easy, Harris and Ngo said.

“The problem is bigger than what people actually see,” Harris said of food insecurity. “When we first started, we were in front of people doing surveys. That’s embarrassing, saying, ‘I don’t have food.’ Nobody wants to admit that.”

When the pair switched to anonymous surveys, the number of people reporting food insecurity climbed.

On Wednesday, a 30-year-old student was clutching two bags filled with canned vegetables, pasta and granola bars.

The Lakewood resident, a wife and mother of one, said she’s made two visits to the pantry since it opened. Her husband is out of work due to medical issues.

“The budget is a little tight,” said the woman, who didn’t want to give her name.

TCC’s is the only food bank the full-time student uses.

“If I’m studying, it’s convenient,” she said. “I’m really happy it’s here.”

The only qualifying factor to use the food bank is to be a student.

Food is distributed by family size, McLean said.

McLean sees the need on campus every day he opens the pantry. Recently, three female students came in just before closing, he said.

“The first words out of their mouths were, ‘We’re hungry’,” McLean recalled. “They were serious, they were in need and they were so appreciative.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor
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