Hometown Hero: Food bank coordinator lifts, laughs and loves the work

Tammy Solomon has helped feed Federal Way families for more than 20 years.

It’s Friday morning, and a steady stream of people — all ages and backgrounds, some with families and some without — flows through the Federal Way Multi-Service Center’s South 336th Street food bank.

Staff and volunteers buzz in and out of the building, stocking food from the warehouse and directing visitors. One runs to get a wheelchair for a man in line who’s too tired to stand.

It’s a big production for their small team. And for more than two decades, it’s had the help of Tammy Solomon, the daily operations coordinator for the food bank.

In that role, Solomon, 61, helps with making orders, directing volunteers and drivers and writing reports on the food bank’s activities. She moves food and supplies, assists visitors when there’s a language barrier, and hands out diapers to families. In short, she does a little bit of everything.

It’s a group effort, Solomon said: “The people here at the Multi-Service Center, they’re all like family. … Everybody gets to know each other because we don’t have a large staff.”

Her passion for helping feed families in Federal Way and beyond is why Tammy Solomon is the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for March.

“I love it,” Solomon said. “I’ve gotten to where I know the clients really well, and that really helps.”

When Solomon was in high school, her own mom used the MSC food bank.

“And so I always said, ‘Well, I want to help eventually be able to … give some time to help them volunteer and do stuff for the community,’ ” she said.

Solomon started volunteering with the MSC in 1997, restocking, handing out food and doing “a little bit of everything,” and became a staff member two years later.

When she started, the whole operation was just her and two other part-time employees. But after her husband was rendered unable to work from a train accident and the MSC needed a full-time person in the operation, Solomon took on the responsibility.

More than two decades later, after undergoing back surgery and physical therapy, she’s still on her feet moving heavy boxes of supplies at the food bank.

“You have to be physical,” Solomon said. “I still do my lifting. (And I’ll keep doing it) until I can’t. And when I can’t do it anymore, I (hope) to come back and volunteer and do something. I can do paperwork, intake, data entry. … I like to stay busy. I have a hard time sitting.”

When you’ve been doing the job as long as Solomon has, people tend to remember you.

When she visited Great Falls, Montana, for one of her daughter’s weddings, two visitors to the food bank recognized Solomon and congratulated her for her daughter’s wedding. When she visits her brother on the coast, people in Ocean Shores or Pacific Beach come up to catch up with her. It’s enough to bewilder her children wherever they go, she said.

But some things have changed at the food bank, like a growing need for their services.

“It used to be, our client base would be 25 to 50 a day,” Solomon said. “ Now we’re up to over 200, sometimes 300.”

Is that due to a growing population or times getting tougher for families to make ends meet? Solomon said it seems to be “a little bit of both.”

Their clients range from the homeless to homeowners who have trouble balancing the cost of food with paying rent or childcare. Some have been coming for years, but there’s always a steady stream of newcomers.

On average, around 75 clients visiting the food bank each week are new, and they’ve expanded to serve hundreds of families through home delivery per week, with the help of United Way. All told, they’re averaging around 3,000 to 4,000 visits either to the food bank or through deliveries per month.

Visitors to the food bank can take home grocery essentials like bread, milk, peanut butter, pasta, meat, and a bag of produce. Sometimes there’s hand sanitizer, pizza, pre-made sandwiches or chips. If they have a dog or a cat, they can take home some pet food. Ditto for diapers and formula for babies.

The MSC works with Food Lifeline, a nonprofit that delivers food to hundreds of food banks and shelters across Washington. Groceries get delivered from stores like Safeway, Target, Amazon Fresh and QFC, and restaurants like Chipotle, Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

What’s really special, though, are the flowers. They pick them up daily from Trader Joe’s and sometimes from Walmart, Solomon said.

“It kind of cheers them up,” Solomon said. “… We have one of the volunteers that’ll sometimes pick out flowers for certain people because he knows who they are. And we’ve had people in tears. They’ve just been so appreciative.”