Community Food Bank via Creative Commons

PCC student Nicole Diaz visits the Lancer Pantry about once or twice a week, depending on how much her family spent or saved. The thought of living in a pandemic caused her to suffer from panic attacks when visiting the pantry. Still, she waited in line and brought home black beans, soups, and candies for her younger siblings.

Diaz’s family struggles with the basic necessities since her parents aren’t making enough money to make ends meet. For most college students, the social norm is for parents to help their children, but Diaz helps her parents by tying up those loose ends. She takes care of her younger siblings, cooks, and cleans for everyone while her parents are working. She depends on financial aid to help her and her family since her parents pay for the mortgage and other bills. Diaz also uses her financial aid so she can go grocery shopping, buy essentials like toothpaste, or deodorant, school supplies, and buy clothes and shoes. Since she’s the eldest of six siblings, she makes sure that she splits the money evenly between her family. She saves whatever money she has leftover for the next time she needs to go shopping for her family.

“I barely got anything from the school because it was too expensive for me,” Diaz said. “Since my budget is only $20 per week, I either have to bring lunch from home, go to Jack In The Box, McDonald’s, or go hungry for the day. My parents don’t make enough at their jobs and since they’re immigrants from Cuba, they don’t speak very good English. My siblings and I are helping them with their English so they can have a better time at their work.”

These are the realities that PCC students face when they arrive on campus. Coming to school doesn’t mean that you just have to pay your tuition, buy your books, and show up on time. Students spend a few hours, if not, the entire day on campus to make their schedules fit their needs. That’s why food services can be a barrier for students who are already facing tight budgets.

“I think number one, like any other student, I would say that the cost was too expensive,” Associated Students President Emmanuel Gomez said. “I never fully committed to having to pay for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was over five bucks. I think that was ridiculous. A cup of chopped up fruit was roughly $5.25.”

Gomez is leading the charge to get students more involved in choosing the next vendor. Gomez wants the best for students at PCC and will be surveying what the food should be and how much it should cost. He is trying to give many opportunities for students to have their voices heard for the brand new vendor.

“I’m hoping this vendor will communicate with the college and put their pricing into consideration. I’m hoping the new vendor will be considerate of the student’s cultures and try to make their foods,” said Gomez.

Andre Lopez is another PCC student who struggles with money. He has to bring leftover dinner to have his lunch during school. Lopez depends on the money he makes from his full-time job to support his sister, mother, and himself. He works approximately 60 hours per week at his job and only makes minimum wage. His mother is a single mom who works as a nurse during the night and sleeps during the day to recuperate, so she can be energized for her next shift. The only time Lopez spends money is for school.

Before he thinks about spending money, he has to think about paying some of the bills around the apartment they’re living in, his mom’s car payment, and grocery shopping. The money is so tight that Lopez creates a monthly budget just to make sure they’re on track. Lopez visits the Lancer Pantry once or twice a week if his family doesn’t have enough money for the supermarket. When asked about PCC getting a new vendor, he was glad to hear that the prices will be reasonable. Plus, he won’t have to rush to eat a meal before he attends his next class. Lopez spends about 15 dollars per week on food if he forgets to bring lunch or if he doesn’t have enough time to make it.

The two main food options at PCC are the Lancer Pantry and the food services vendor. Darlene Inda, who was hired in May 2020, is PCC’s Executive Director of Business Services. She is in charge of the food services vendor, which is hosted at the Lancer’s Pass. The previous vendor, whose contract ended, was I-8. PCC students had concerns that the cost was too high, the food quality wasn’t great, the customer service wasn’t adequate, and they didn’t offer a wide ranging variety in selection. In addition, as reported by the PCC Courier in 2018, students had concerns that Tychicus Yu, vice-president and corporate chef of I-8, was registered as a sex offender after an altercation with a student. PCC did not terminate its contract with I-8 after the incident happened. PCC allowed the contract to play out until it expired June 30, 2020.

“The food services vendor and lancer pantry are two totally separate things, however, they can intermingle or should intermingle, I should say,” Inda said. “At the end of the day, if there’s food that we can give to the pantry for students with food insecurities, that’s what we should be doing.”

Diaz’s concerns with the cost of the food services vendor at PCC mirrors the concerns that the Associated Students had when I-8 were on campus. The Associated Students were concerned that there was a lack of flexibility for students who needed a special diet.

“It would be nice to have them include students’ cultures because not everybody grew up eating cheeseburgers and traditional omelets, hash browns, and whatever they had in the cafeteria,” Gomez said. “So we can make sure that we are inclusive. What is it that students would be happy to eat to prevent them from crossing the street to Carl’s Jr. or whatever. And we see why students can go because it’s the most affordable thing.”

Many PCC students depend on the Lancer Pantry to not only to feed themselves and their families, but see it as the only option to further their education. PCC continues to offer services for the students who can’t afford to buy what the school offers, like the Lancer Pantry. The Lancer Pantry gives out food to students, community members, and anyone with a “91106” area code. They act as a free supplemental nutritional food resource and a referral center for additional on and off-campus food assistance programs.

“All currently enrolled students qualify for Lancer Pantry services,” Ketmani Kouanchao, Associated Dean of Special Services at PCC. “Our program is based on donations from private community members and local businesses who either make in kind donations or local grocers who are able to donate food. Together with drive through food service and virtual assistance we are seeing about 75-80 students a month.”

Although the Lancer Pantry has acknowledged the lack of food variety and depend on donations, they have yet to respond with a solution to that direct problem. When asked about it, Kouanchao said, “Of course, that is an extremely valid concern. Since the pandemic we have had to make specific modifications to protect our students against COVID-19, that is why we implemented the free electronic gift cards so that students would be able to choose for themselves their diet specific items and other fresh produce.”

The gift card is an innovative solution to avoid the transmission of the COVID virus, but it does not answer the lack of variety in their food selection.

“There was someone named James Bull who is now a part of Pathways,” Gomez said. “In community colleges, there are 48% who identify as food insecure. And this is according to The Hope Center for College Community and Justice. These are numbers that are before COVID. So, 2019. So we can only imagine how the numbers are now.”

Kouanchao also stated that the community service programs have changed since the pandemic, but the goal is the same. The Lancer Pantry will have to make adjustments to serve the community as they strive to bring back some semblance of normalcy.

As far as the food services vendor, they are waiting for June 15 when the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, stated that he will lift the state of emergency, as long as the COVID cases continue to fall. That way, Inda will be able to approach vendors who can serve all of the PCC campuses. So far, Inda has created a committee that will include 10 people. The list includes members from PCC Hospitality, The Child Development Center, Foothill Campus, Campus Senate, Classified Senate, and the Associated Students.

“I want 100% quality customer service,” Inda said. “Yes, they are here as a contracted vendor to make money per se, but to me that’s not the goal. The goal is to serve our students. And the goal is to serve our students in a presentable manner, to serve our students with quality food and quality cost, cleanliness, friendliness. I also want to see some diversity in our food services vendor, and I want them to be integrated into our campus.”

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