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Food, Shelter, Gas: How Long Beach City College Is Addressing Basic Needs For Students

Two men and one young woman stand in the canned foods section of a food pantry, all wearing LBCC black sweatshirts and smiling.
Justin Mendez, Interim Director for Basic Needs at LBCC (center) stands with Andrea Ortiz, a first-year student at Long Beach City College (right), and another basic needs staff member inside the Viking Vault on LBCC's Liberal Arts campus.
(Jackie Orchard
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Community colleges in Southern California are increasing the amount of attention they put on basic needs for students. Many colleges report that students sleep in their cars or struggle to find their next meal while balancing their studies.

Tucked away in the Student Center of Long Beach City College, on the Liberal Arts Campus, is an unassuming glass door labeled “Viking Vault” where staffers are working to make students lives a lot easier.

Upon entering, a student would first see shelves of canned foods and fresh produce, or turn to the right to find rows of diapers and toys.

But the vault holds more than food and household items. It is also the center point for housing support and transportation services for nearly 1,000 students per week.

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No "Typical" Community College Student

Justin Mendez is the interim director for basic needs at LBCC, and he says addressing issues like housing and food insecurity means first educating the public that there is no typical mold of a student. They all have different struggles.

“Even having a basic needs program at a community college campus—it acknowledges that what we think of as a ‘traditional college student’ is not the reality of our college students,” Mendez said. “At the community colleges, we're acknowledging that we're having an increased population of parenting students that are on their own.”

Discreet Access To Food, Transportation, And Shelter

Mendez says part of his job is protecting anonymity so students feel comfortable using these services.

“We're mindful to de-stigmatize the use of our service. And that really includes reducing the barriers and reducing the amount of information that we ask of our students,” Mendez said. “So we try to make it as simple as possible.”

Mendez points to the QR code sheet posted at the entrance. A few students wander in, wave hello, scan it with their phones, and get to shopping.

Two small, free-standing posters in red and white with the Viking Vault QR code and other basic needs information.
Upon entering the Viking Vault, students can scan the QR code on their phones or use the nearby laptop to sign in for free.
(Jackie Orchard

“We ask for their student ID, how many people are in their household–and that's for reporting purposes for where we get our donations–and then contact information,” Mendez said.

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Mendez says there is also an option for students to check a box if they’re experiencing homelessness, if they're a veteran student, if they're former foster youth, or if they’re formerly incarcerated–so that his team can connect them with additional resources.

Growing Resources

The Viking Vault opened in a small space in 2019 as a food pantry. But high demand brought the program into its larger current space in 2020, where it now operates as a Basic Needs Center. Funding comes from the Student Equity and Achievement Program, part of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the depth of need at many areas colleges, which have grown their similar programs. Last year the chancellor started a Basic Needs budget as well. That, and other money from LBCC, funds a 7-person staff and 10 student assistants.

Two large crates of fresh green peppers.
Peppers, tomatoes, and other fresh produce is delivered to the Viking Vault weekly from community partners.
(Jackie Orchard

Community Partners

Mendez says without a network of community partners they wouldn't be able to battle their number one enemy: housing.

“We do not have on-campus housing, all of our students that are unhoused — we can't just say, ‘Hey, come on, we got a place for you,’" Mendez said. "Like, you know, at Cal State Long Beach, they have dorms, they're able to have these emergency housing placements immediately. So all of those students are referred to our community partners."

Mendez mentions Jovenes Inc., which helps those ages 18 to 25 who are experiencing homelessness. But they find every partnership they can: Economic Roundtable, Mental Health of America Los Angeles, Volunteers of America, Shower of Hope, Long Beach Multi Service Center and Harbor Interfaith.

For food, they partner with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Food Finders, U.S. Foods, Los Alamitos Bay Garden Club, Long Beach Rotary, Lakewood Rotary Club — the list goes on.

Free Gas For Students

Mendez says one item that students are constantly scrambling for: gas cards, which have money loaded to debit cards, and come from grants and donations, and Metro Go passes.

The metro passes cover most transit systems throughout L.A. County, Mendez said. “We know gas prices are crazy. So that's a constant ask.”

Mendez said most gas cards are private donations, and they always need more.

Student Workers

Items Of Need At Long Beach City College
  • The Viking Vault offers food and basic supplies to students in need. But they also rely on the community for donations. Have excess items? They're open to receiving goods Monday and Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

  • What They're Looking For:

    • water
    • canned vegetables, fruit, and meat (no refrigeration required)
    • grains: pasta, cereal, oatmeal, rice
    • snacks
    • peanut butter
    • lentils/beans
    • almond milk
    • canned soup
    • items that do not require refrigeration
    • bathroom products (soap, toilet paper, tampons, etc.)
    • baby products (diapers, wipes, shampoo)
  • The Viking Vault is located on the Liberal Arts Campus in E-131, or the Pacific Coast Campus (PCC) in QQ-107.

Andrea Ortiz is in her first year of studying social work at Long Beach City College. She works at the Viking Vault and says in many ways it has opened her eyes to the kind of social work she wants to do.

“A lot of people need help,” Ortiz said. “So I feel like having this experience, I would know in what fields I would like to go into or who I would like to help.”

Ortiz says she, too, felt nervous when she first came to the Vault, but she wants her fellow classmates to stop by and see that it’s really no big deal.

“Don't be discouraged. Don't feel intimidated. Just come in, you know, everyone's friendly here. They're going to make you feel welcome,” Ortiz said. “The more you come, the more it's gonna feel like an everyday thing. So just come in and say hi.”

Connecting Students to Housing

Mendez says providing food is essential to addressing basic needs, but what a lot of students really need is housing.

“That'd be the dream, right? For me, as a basic needs director to say, ‘Hey, we actually have housing and we can allocate these specific units for our students for that immediate short term placement while we're getting them connected to more long term support.’”

Don't feel embarrassed, don't feel ashamed because we've heard it all.
— Justin Mendez, Interim Director for Basic Needs, Long Beach City College

Mendez says being able to offer that kind of service would be huge, especially because the students he sees are often under all kinds of pressure.

“Their mental health concerns, they're going through domestic violence abuse, they just got kicked out of their family because they just had a kid, or maybe they just came out. You know, there are so many different stories and struggles that our students are going through,” Mendez said. “Being able to say that these students had no place to go, and now they're actually connected to a program that's providing them with the support they need… It's the most difficult part of the job to hear their stories, but it also makes it one of the most rewarding jobs to know that we're making that impact.”

Two men and one young woman stand and laugh inside a food pantry, all wearing black LBCC sweatshirts.
Justin Mendez and his team discuss logistics for the upcoming Spring Semester in the Viking Vault.
(Jackie Orchard

Come As You Are

For now, Mendez is looking ahead to February 6th, when about 24,000 students will return to LBCC’s campus for the “Week of Welcome” to kick off the Spring Semester. Mendez says the shelves will be stocked. His message is simple: Don’t be shy.

“This resource, our basic needs office, is for you,” Mendez said. “If you need any type of support with food, don't feel embarrassed, don't feel ashamed because we've heard it all. You're not the only one going through your struggles. We have resources to provide that direct support, and even connection with our housing partners if it's something more severe. So come by and let us know what's going on and let us know how we can help you.”

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