A coalition of student groups at Brainerd High School have come together to provide an option for students who may not be getting enough food at home.

The new food shelf at the school, dubbed the Warrior Warehouse, provides free food, hygiene products and clothing to students who need them, no questions asked. The project came together last fall while students, teachers and administrators all had the idea on their minds.

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A site visit to Chaska High School to learn more about the school's schedule also revealed a food pantry at the school, BHS Principal Andrea Rusk said. At the same time, senior Rachel Cleveland and BHS Student Council adviser Beth Bastian had been talking about hunger issues, which resulted in a We Scare Hunger food drive around Halloween. Teachers had also been sending Rusk articles about schools that had food pantries, so all these factors kind of came together, Rusk said.

"It was like divine inspiration, like a lightning bolt," Bastian said. "Coming together at exactly the same moment."

The We Scare Hunger drive raised 1,740 pounds of food, Cleveland said, which got a variety of student leaders and organizations excited about making an impact in the school and in the community. It sparked discussions and more importantly planning among the students about how a food pantry would look and run, she said.

Jennifer Smith, executive director of United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties, contacted Rusk to see if the school would be interested in applying for a grant. A group of high school advisers met to learn more about the grant and to talk about how the school could collaborate among different student groups on a single project. Students wrote and presented the grant to the United Way as well as shopped for clothes and hygiene products to stock the store, Cleveland said.

It's been exciting to have such a variety of different student groups come together for a common project, Bastian said. They started with the idea from Chaska, she said, and then asked what they could do to make it bigger.

Students committed at the beginning to doing the project well, Cleveland said, which has paid off. The Warrior Warehouse looks like a grocery store and there's been a lot of thoughtful planning involved in the process, she said.

The BHS Student Council served as the driving force in finding a dedicated space for the pantry and preparing it, Bastian said. But once the space opened up, she said, students became excited and more involved.

"We all had envisioned a closet at first," Cleveland said. "And then we found out we had this huge classroom and the potential of what we could fill in a classroom-sized space."

A student can access the food pantry at any time by asking a teacher, Cleveland said, and the room will be unlocked for them to use. The Warrior Warehouse is also open on Fridays from 3:15-4:30 p.m.

The groups involved include the Class Cabinet from each grade in grades 9-12, Interact Club, Key Club, FFA, Art Club and Student Council. Each group has their own responsibilities when it comes to running the store, Bastian said.

The school is currently taking non-perishable food items and money as donations, Rusk said. They haven't worked out how to handle clothes donations yet, so they're limiting donations to food and money for now, both of which can be dropped off at the main offices in both high school buildings.

Coffee and clothes

Advisers and students also started planning for what to do once the food pantry was up and running, Bastian said. Food would come off the shelves, she said, but students had to figure out how to keep the shelves stocked. They reached out to Second Harvest Heartland and learned they could purchase 5 pounds of food for $1 to stock the shelves.

"We started thinking then also about sustainability," Bastian said. "You can do food drives, food drives, food drives, but you're going to hit a saturation point."

The BHS Student Council came up with the idea of starting a coffee kiosk in the current Warrior Outlet, a snack shop at the high school. The new coffee corner, dubbed Fifth Street Brew, is designed to generate revenue to support the Warrior Warehouse.

Senior Marina Cruz's parents own and operate Adirondack Coffee in Nisswa, so she stepped in to help get Fifth Street Brew up and running. She was able to borrow a portable espresso machine from her parents, which helped get the coffee shop off the ground. A group of students from different clubs have volunteered their time to learn how to run the shop, she said.

"So next year, when they have to start this up again, they know what to do," Cruz said. "It's gone really well so far."

The Warrior Warehouse and Fifth Street Brew are natural partners, Cleveland said, because about 42 percent of BHS students receive free and reduced lunch. At the same time, about a quarter of BHS students carry a coffee cup to and from their classes.

"Why not appeal to both populations through a means of collectively serving the two," Cleveland said. "Which I think has been a great benefit for us."

Fifth Street Brew serves lattes, chais, hot chocolate, Italian sodas and recently added an iced coffee, Cruz said. She pays attention to what high school students at Adirondack Coffee buy, she said, and brings those popular items to Fifth Street Brew.

"We've gotten things in here that they would like," Cruz said.

Fifth Street Brew is open before school from 7:45-8:15 a.m. and offers a limited selection of drinks requiring minimal prep time during passing time, Cruz said. There's also someone in the shop all day.

Running the coffee shop ties in with a leadership seminar course Cruz is taking, Bastian said. She's applying those leadership skills by training in students to run the shop after she graduates in May.

"It's like real-life skill training," Cleveland said. "We're essentially running a little business at the high school."

The Warrior Outlet is operated by the school's special education department, Rusk said, so students with disabilities can work there and gain job skills. Bastian has been speaking with special education staff about them helping at the Warrior Warehouse, which would help them gain different job skills.

Raising awareness

Last week, English teachers brought their students by the food pantry for a tour, Bastian said, which prompted many students to ask what they can donate and how they can help.

"That's been really exciting," Bastian said.

There was a fear of a stigma which could be attached to visiting a food pantry, Cleveland said. But bringing students by it en masse, as well as having a senior student share her story of food needs has helped fight that stigma, she said.

"Slowly over time we're going to hopefully open up a conversation with our student body here about what need looks like," Cleveland said. "It's not always apparent, so how can we address that and be a supportive community?"

"We are recognizing a need for our students, so how can we help?" Rusk said.


SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett.


This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of BHS senior Marina Cruz's first name. 

The Dispatch regrets the error.