Almost half of community college students are food insecure. And that includes central Minnesotans, too.

An April 2019 study by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice -- a national organization dedicated to supporting college students -- found 48% of community college students surveyed reported they were food insecure, meaning they could go up to 48 hours between meals because of lack of finances and resources.

Thanks to various community partners, the food pantry at Central Lakes College helps combat food insecurity among local students.

The newly remodeled 500-square-foot space on the Brainerd campus offers a wide range of foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, for students to grab free of charge when they need.

“We’re really pleased with the way that people are really starting to care about this issue because we’ve heard from quite a few folks that are surprised that college students are dealing with this issue,” Erich Heppner, director of Student Life at CLC, said of food insecurity. “I think there’s a perception that it’s not necessarily that demographic that’s struggling as far as food access goes.”

But Heppner knows the statistics and how it can affect various parts of students’ lives.

“We’re thinking about it from a student success point of view, from a retention point of view,” he said. “If we can’t send our students to class with something in their bellies, how do we expect them to be successful in the classroom?”

An open house Tuesday, Aug. 27, showcased the revamped food pantry in the Student Life area on campus. Heppner and several student workers talked with community members and partners about pantry’s importance and how so many generous donations have made it a reality.

The food pantry has had a long history at CLC but hadn’t had a high volume of students using it until about 2015, when it underwent a transformation to make it more welcoming and accessible.

“It’s kind of been a scavenger hunt to find where the food shelf is located because it’s had so many areas that it’s existed,” Heppner said, noting the food shelf was run by Student Senate when he took up his post in 2018.

When the food shelf was tucked away in an office or under lock and key behind the front desk, students didn’t have easy access to it. But on the flip side, positioning the food shelf out in the open in a hallway didn’t work well either because of the stigma Heppner said came from using it.

“There’s the stereotype of a lot of students don’t want to be using a food shelf,” he said.

In 2015, Heppner said Student Life looked at rebranding it, first by renaming the food shelf, the food pantry.

“A little bit softer, a little more subtle as far as what it’s providing,” he said.

Then they moved the location up to the Student Life Center, which Heppner said has a fun student union-sort of vibe that attracts students.

“It’s where a lot of friendships are made, so it’s kind of a real positive space,” he said.

At that point, the food pantry only consisted of two shelves and a refrigerator/freezer unit and relied on donations from college staff and faculty.

Today, an average of 200 students a week walk in to the fresh fruit and vegetable stand right away, and are then met with dozens of shelves stocked with all sorts of foods, along with frozen meals and refrigerated items.

The Central Lakes College food pantry offers a plethora of food options -- including fresh fruits and vegetables -- to students free a charge to help combat food insecurity, which plague nearly half of community college students across the country. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
The Central Lakes College food pantry offers a plethora of food options -- including fresh fruits and vegetables -- to students free a charge to help combat food insecurity, which plague nearly half of community college students across the country. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

That wouldn’t be possible, though, without the various community partners donating food and funds.

Second Harvest North Central Food Bank provides the majority of the goods, while Pan-O-Gold Baking Co. donates freshly baked bread each week. Local grocery stores, like Cub Foods, Walmart and Costco, have donated both food and funds in the past, as well as hosted food drives for the cause.

“We’re typically after things that we can get for free, and we’re expecting it to be maybe stuff that the best-by date’s a little old, or stuff like that,” Heppner said. “But we’ve found that the community is very generous and even able and willing to give us stuff that is new and fresh.”

Last academic year, the food pantry went through about 17,000 pounds of food.

Kids Against Hunger-Brainerd Lakes Area often donates some of its pre-packaged dried goods to the food pantry and offers cooking lessons to students to show them how to best use healthy ingredients, as does the University of Minnesota-Extension.

“Obviously, if they’re eating better and they’re eating enough, they’re going to be healthier,” John Poston, CEO of Kids Against Hunger-Brainerd Lakes Area, said during the open house, noting he believes the food pantry model CLC has come up with will likely be used as an example for other colleges around the state.

Other community partners working with the food pantry include Crow Wing Energized, the Initiative Foundation, Brainerd Lions Club and Sourcewell.

CLC alumnus Cody Caughey is working under a grant from Sourcewell right now to reach out to organizations willing to donate goods or offer grants to the pantry.

While attending CLC, Caughey worked at the shelf under Heppner and occasionally made use of it himself as well.

“To have a resource like that as a student is a huge thing,” he said, noting he and other students didn’t always have healthy, budget-friendly eating options otherwise.

“I’ve seen so many students come in who don’t have anything,” he said. “They live out of their cars, they’re trying to feed their baby, stuff like that. It’s a good resource to have.”

Student Leon Lyttle described the food pantry as a lifesaver that helps lessen the financial burden for students.

“They can grab something to eat for the day, or they can grab a couple things to bring home,” he said, noting he sees the benefits, not only as a student, but as a member of Student Life who works at the pantry as well.

Athletes tend to use the pantry a lot, Lyttle said, both during the school year and the summer when they’re on campus for games and practices.

Now an alumna, former CLC basketball player Naomi Lane said she liked the options the food pantry provided when she was on campus all day with morning classes and evening practices and didn’t want to drive the hour home between the two.

“It was a nice easy thing to grab,” she said.

After the 2015 rebranding campaign, not only did donations and usership increase, but Heppner believes the stigma around students using a food shelf, or food pantry in this case, has dramatically decreased. Now, the food pantry is a part of campus culture for so many students.

Students can take a bagful of groceries for the weekend or simply grab a couple items for lunch.

“Because what they’re telling us is that they don’t have money for lunch,” Heppner said. “So we’re feeling good about providing something for them.”

Heppner said he doesn’t really have any regulations with how often students use the food pantry, as long as they’re respectful of others.

“We found that students really kind of police themselves,” he said, noting he has never seen an issue of one or students wiping out the stock, as they seem to recognize and value the community support behind the food pantry.

How to donate

Any food or monetary donations to the CLC food pantry are welcome. Money, however, is preferred, as Heppner said Second Harvest makes it easy to stretch each dollar as far as it can go, and with monetary donations he can shop for the specific foods that are most needed.

All donations can be dropped off at the CLC Welcome Center on both the Brainerd and Staples Campuses, as the Staples Campus has its own version of a food pantry for students as well.

“We have definitely benefited from people wanting to invest in our students and keep them here in our community and keep them healthy,” Heppner said.