Tarrant County College has earned its reputation for being one of the county’s leading economic engines, to the tune of approximately $1.7 billion annually, but it is the College’s genuine willingness to serve the community that endears it to people throughout the region. TCC’s six campuses consistently look for ways to enhance the community, providing opportunities for people at every level of the organization to weave service into their work. Whether it is feeding the hungry or providing tax assistance to low-income families, TCC understands that helping people overcome obstacles to education and job readiness contributes to the greater good of Tarrant County.
Each year, TCC serves more than 100,000 students, some of whom struggle financially and need assistance. Nationally, the number of people turning to food banks and other resources to keep food on the table is growing, raising concerns about food security for students attending colleges and universities. This quiet epidemic threatens millions of students each year, according to researchers.
The comprehensive “Hungry and Homeless in College: Results from a National Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education” report found that 67 percent of community college students face food insecurity as they pursue their education. These numbers tend to be slightly higher in the South, and this problem also affects a percentage of students enrolled at TCC.
Led by Cheryl North, sociology instructor and food pantry sponsor at TCC Northeast, the Hurst campus launched its food pantry in 2016 to help students without enough food to eat. North and her colleagues were pleasantly surprised by the campus community’s response to this problem.
Since opening its doors two years ago, the Northeast Food Pantry has served more than 3,000 students in need. Our food pantry not only allows our students to pursue their education free from hunger, but also provides an ongoing opportunity for students to actively practice curriculum goals of civic responsibility and global citizenship.
An engaged campus community has supported work of the food pantry in myriad ways. During the 2017-2018 academic year, for example, the math and drama clubs both held canned food drives to help stock the pantry. “Some commonly collected canned goods were tuna, canned meat, canned meals, stew, chili, soup, pasta, rice and canned fruit,” North explained. Generous donations from the Community Food Bank in Fort Worth also help the shelves remain stocked throughout the year.
Students needing food can visit the food pantry in NCAB 1136A for non-perishable grocery items that can help nourish them through the difficult times. Simply bring a copy of the current course schedule to access food pantry services. Sack meals also are available at the library when the food pantry is closed.
The food pantry’s important work and sustained success has garnered the attention of others in the community. “As consultants, we have assisted three other TCC campus locations and Texas Wesleyan University, plus we have coordinated with the national College and University Food Bank Alliance on some future initiatives,” North explained.
With the food pantry currently serving thousands of students from a small space, North hopes to move into a larger location on campus once space becomes available. There also have been conversations about expanding the pantry, either by incorporating a community garden or a clothes pantry, in the future.
TCC Southeast in Arlington was one of the campuses that reached out for North’s help. Established in 2017, their campus food pantry was the second facility to open its doors for students. “Not only did I hear students express concern that their last meal was 48 hours ago, but the school health services heard similar stories from students experiencing headaches and abdominal pain,” said Sharon Wettengel, associate professor of sociology and food pantry sponsor. “It became clear there was a need for a food pantry.” TCC Southeast’s Food Pantry provides grocery items to the campus community with help from Arlington Charities.
Wettengel credits TCC Southeast President Bill Coppola for fully supporting a food pantry on the campus. A $1,000 minigrant from Coppola initiated the opening of the food pantry in March 2017. “Originally, we were located in a small section of what the Student Activities department used as its storage closet, serving students two days a week.” During off-hours, including the summer, people could go to the Library or Health Services and Counseling to get bags of food; however, things changed during the fall 2017 semester.
“We were surprised when the food pantry was moved to a halfsection of a portable on the east side of the campus,” Wettengel said. “Now, students can come and get bags of food on a weekly basis.” Additionally, she said the new location allows the food pantry to offer food demonstrations led by members of the Dietetics program. People can take a bag of food home with typical things like canned foods, rice, pasta, along with laminated recipes based on what was in the bag. Creative student committee members came up with the idea to create recipes for the bagged groceries and it has been a huge hit. Additionally, the campus successfully hosts two food demonstrations each year, though Wettengel hopes to host them monthly during the 2018-2019 school year.
As more people visit the food pantry, it will be important to have adequate staffing to handle students in need. “During the summer, we started holding orientations for students, faculty and anybody else ready to volunteer in the food pantry," Wettengel said.
I want everyone to have a good understanding of what food insecurity is. It’s not just missing a meal or two. It’s really having to make tough choices. ‘Do I buy a tank of gas to get me to school or do I buy some groceries and maybe not be able to go to school.
Associate Professor of Sociology,
Food Pantry Sponsor
Wettengel added that hungry students can visit the food pantry, email a pantry volunteer and meet that person somewhere or volunteers can leave the bag in the nurse’s office, Health Services or Counseling areas during off-peak hours. To participate, students are asked to fill out a short form that captures demographic data and a United States Department of Agriculture form that needs to be completed just once a year.
“Hunger can affect so many things. When you think about the students that we have, if they’re healthy, they feel good and they’re alert. All of those things that we want in a student, we know that they have to feel that way in order to be successful,” said Wettengel.
Brittany Vieira, who is working on a second associate degree, says the food pantry at TCC Southeast has helped her family navigate some difficult times, especially during her most recent pregnancy. “When my husband left the military, we didn’t have much money, so I went by the food pantry for assistance,” Vieira explained. “The food pantry had a lot of quick food, snacks and toys that my young daughter enjoyed. I was able to stock up on diapers for my newborn.” Vieira, who is on target to graduate in May 2019, plans to visit the food pantry for help until she graduates, at which time she’ll be able to start working full time.
At TCC South, which is located in what food banks describe as a “food desert,” the campus community knew it was time to address the growing problem of hunger on college campuses. “There is ample research on the correlation between food insecurity and the student’s ability to be successful in their academic studies,” said Jared Cobb, director of Student Services at TCC South.
Launched in September 2017, the food pantry served 229 students with 972 total visits during its first six months of operation. Cobb expects those numbers to remain consistent or grow over the coming months. Often, hungry students won‘t seek assistance due to feelings of shame or embarrassment, yet students don’t have to struggle in silence.
It is a very daunting task for students to try to focus on their academic pursuits when they are malnourished and worried about their next meal.
Director of Student Services
Since most students eat between classes and have limited access to cooking appliances, the South Campus Food Pantry needs more ready-to-eat or microwaveable items to accommodate the demand. Donations typically come from several community partners and the campus community, including student clubs and organizations.
For the past 15 years, Architectural Technology students at TCC South have participated in CANstruction, an international competition organized by local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the Society of Design Administrators. Competing teams design and build structures made of food cans, with the food being donated to the Tarrant Area Food Bank when the competition is over. People interested in donating items to the food pantry at TCC South or who need assistance can visit SSTU 1104A-S.
Located in the Marine Creek area of Fort Worth, TCC Northwest has taken a different approach to eradicating hunger. The campus partners with Community Link food bank to host the monthly Community Food Market, a farmer’s market-style experience that is open to all community members at no cost. Families are responsible for bringing their own bags and wagons to transport items. More than a canned food drive, the Community Food Market offers a variety of fresh foods, including meats and produce.
“TCC Northwest is located in a food desert and it is difficult for many in this area to make it to a food pantry,” said Lisa Benedetti, Northwest dean of humanities. “We wanted to create an event with dignity to help serve students, staff and the community.” Data show the need is great. More than 11,000 children in Community’s Link’s service area are at risk of hunger. In Tarrant County, more than 113,000 children live in poverty, with more than 130,000 experiencing food instability.
Before kids headed back to school in August, TCC Northwest joined forces with Saginaw-based Community Link food bank to present the Back 2 School Bash, providing supplies and services to more than 2,000 children in northwest Tarrant County. Children received backpacks, school supplies, books, haircuts and health screenings. After collecting school supplies, families shopped in the Community Food Market.
Campus leaders at TCC Trinity River and TCC Connect, both located in downtown Fort Worth, are discussing the possibility of launching a food pantry in the future. In the meantime, students in need can get referrals to outside resources for assistance. Throughout the year, both campuses partner with Tarrant Area Food Bank by collecting non-perishable items for distribution to the community.
Food pantry workers understand the significance of their work. “The assistance we give to our students spreads to their families and can have far-reaching effects,” North said. “If we promote student success by assisting our students to get these basic needs met as they pursue their education, we are providing a pathway to elevate their personal success and productivity for years to come.”
As TCC’s student population becomes even more diverse and inclusive, the College has become even more intentional about cultivating a community of servant leaders. In addition to giving food, clothing and school supplies, TCC employees and students get involved by mentoring students in the community.
Each holiday season, TCC staffers kick into high gear, bringing Christmas cheer to thousands of people in the community. For example, during last year’s Christmas season, the campuses successfully hosted several charitable
giving projects. TCC Northwest collected items for 6 Stones’ New Hope Center in Euless, which provides emergency assistance of food, clothing and other resources to people facing emergency situations.
At TCC Northeast, the campus community presented The Giving Tree Contributions, allowing each identified student to receive a $100 gift card. The Phi Theta Kappa chapter on campus collected 100 holiday thank-you notes for active military personnel and veterans. Earlier this year, faculty and staff donated gently used work attire for a Mission Arlington clothing drive benefiting members of the community as they transition to jobs that require professional attire.
The Student Veterans Association and VetSuccess Center at TCC Trinity River collected coats and other winter items to donate to homeless veterans. In Arlington, TCC Southeast’s Culinary Arts program and other members of the campus community hosted a special holiday event for approximately 50 residents from the Arlington Life Shelter.
Family Empowerment Center
Another valuable resource available to Tarrant County residents is the Family Empowerment Center (FEC), located at TCC South. Started in 2013 as part of the mission and vision of the late Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley, the FEC collaborates with community partners to promote and support economic stability through education.
During its first two years of existence, the center partnered with United Way of Tarrant County and Catholic Charities to provide services to those in need. Today, the FEC partners with the City of Fort Worth to provide an array of resources, including financial coaching, health and wellness workshops, immigration services, job preparation and General Education Development (GED) preparation offered in English and Spanish.
“The Family Empowerment Center is a place where students can come and talk about life issues, including food insecurity, transportation instability and affordable childcare. We assist students who may not have the same resources as some others,” said Peter Jordan, president of South Campus.
One of the amenities at FEC is the child activity room, a space where children ages two to six years old can read and play games while the adult waits for services. Parents can watch the children on a monitor mounted just above the reception area. There is also a training room for community partners to hold educational sessions and meetings for up to 16 people. TCC also hosts live demonstration to teach community members about nutrition, preparing food and eating healthy.
Jordan credits the hard-working team for the center’s success. “The work we do matters, so we are all fully vested,” he said. “When you are committed to something, you make it a priority, and that’s what we do every single day.”
A Jobs NOW! Partnership with The Women’s Center helps unemployed or underemployed women and men improve their marketability for future job opportunities. FEC provides a coach/trainer for a cohort that attends a week-long training at the facility, during which participants learn how to develop a personal “elevator speech,” conduct online job searches, hone their soft skills and participate in a mock interview.
“When I started the program, I was really struggling with being unemployed,” said Carolyn Johnson Harris, who completed the program in 2017. “I have a college degree and certificates. So when I got into the program, the young lady who taught the class made me feel like I was worth it. We covered computer skills, we did communication skills, we did job readiness things. I believe that everyone should take this program.”
Approximately 90 percent of the men and women completing the program are placed in higher-paying jobs than when they first started the program, with people securing jobs at public and private entities throughout the region.
FEC is free and open to the community at-large. The goal, according to Jordan, is to establish a Family Empowerment Center on each campus to further serve the residents of Tarrant County.
One of the more popular services offered at FEC is the tax preparation offered by the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. FEC is one of the only VITA sites that provides full-time employee support, with each worker certified by the IRS to conduct intake forms. Because the partnership has been so successful, VITA now has a permanent spot on the TCC South campus.
Data show that 487 tax returns were completed during 2018, with a $588,667 in refunds generated for clients. Filers were able to save $146,100 in preparation fees as well, based on an average of $300 charged by for-profit tax preparers. Overall, there was a 10 percent increase in tax refunds versus the previous year. Each year, the number of people served and refunds issued grows. When TCC South first became a VITA site in 2013, roughly 152 households had their taxes processed for free.
At TCC Southeast in Arlington, the VITA site assisted 541 Tarrant County individuals/families with their 2017 tax returns. A partnership between the campus and Foundation Communities, the VITA site generated $767,012 in total refunds, with $394,710 in total EITC (earned income tax credit) and CTC (child’s tax credit) dollars back into our community. Eight families/individuals were able to add $19,737 to their savings accounts.
“Since 2014, Foundation Communities Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program has partnered with the TCC Southeast campus to provide free income tax services for hard working families & individuals who earn $56k or less,” said Michelle Beltran, Foundation Communities community services director.
With dedicated Volunteer Income Tax Assistance staff and volunteers, 2,732 families/individuals have been assisted and $4,251,169 has been generated back into the community.
Community Services Director, Foundation Communities
Another way TCC is helping students is through the EasyRide program, a partnership with Trinity Metro, to provide free bus rides to eligible TCC students, including Mobility Impaired Transportation Service (MITS) passengers. TCC is picking up the tab, thanks to TCC Chancellor Eugene Giovannini’s vision for removing one of the greatest barriers students have when achieving their educational goals.
With TCC’s EasyRide Program, student IDs double as a free pass on all Trinity Metro buses and the Trinity Railway Express for routes to any of the six campuses, the Tarrant County College Opportunity Center located in the Stop Six area and the Erma C. Johnson Hadley Northwest Center of Excellence for Aviation, Transportation and Logistics. All students have to do is visit the campus copy center to get an activated ID.
Since the program’s launch in May, thousands of students have taken advantage of the program. Students enrolled in TCC’s 2018 summer term were the first ones eligible for the EasyRide Program, many of whom were excited about the College taking care of their transportation needs.
In August, Trinity Metro added bus routes to TCC Northeast in Hurst and TCC Southeast in Arlington to help students travel to and from campus. More importantly, TCC built new bus shelters and strengthened the roadways to accommodate the additional traffic. Learn more about TCC’s EasyRide Program by visiting tccd.edu/easyride.
The entire TCC family, from senior administrators to new hires, remains committed to serving the community and being the first choice for partnerships that will impact the region. To learn more about any of the programs listed in this article or to find out how to partner with TCC, visit tccd.edu/community.