Thanksgiving to-go: CLC students enjoy altered holiday feast

The annual meal at the college was altered this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Central Lakes College students Renee Giles (left) and Danielle Smith finish up their to-go style Thanksgiving meal provided by the college Monday, Nov. 23. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

In a normal year, students at Central Lakes College would line up in the cafeteria for a full turkey buffet in the days before Thanksgiving. President Hara Charlier would join Student Life workers in dishing up mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing and pumpkin pie for all to enjoy while visiting with their peers.

This year isn’t quite the same. The Brainerd campus cafeteria wasn’t quite as packed as normal Monday, Nov. 23, as students picked up containers of food for a grab-and-go style Thanksgiving meal.

“It seems to be going pretty good. It’s just been a lot quieter,” Jason Eslinger, of 3 Cheers Hospitality, said Monday as students trickled in.

Prairie Bay, owned and managed by 3 Cheers Hospitality, runs the Mad Hugger Cafe, which provides lunch service on the Brainerd CLC campus.

About 250 students and staff members would normally come through the line for the school’s annual Thanksgiving meal, and 2020 is no exception, as about 125 people had grabbed their to-go containers halfway through the two-hour window Monday.
“Students are pretty resilient,” Director of Student Life Erich Heppner said.


Funds from the Student Life budget usually go toward the Thanksgiving meal, but this year’s food was paid for by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education. The grant provides funds for a free afternoon/evening meal Monday-Friday on both CLC campuses. With the school’s cafeteria usually closing around 1-2 p.m., there hasn’t always been a meal option for students who take evening classes. Now, they have one.

Heppner estimates the Brainerd campus doles out about 50-75 extra meals a day now, while the Staples campus serves up 25-40. This is good news for students, especially during a pandemic.

“We heard from students that they were struggling before — they were food insecure before. This hasn’t made it any easier,” Heppner said of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A monthly pop-up pantry courtesy of Second Harvest North Central Food Bank has helped out students and other community members this year as well. Heppner said each event sees a line of 300-400 cars, serving about 600 families. Any leftovers from the pop-up pantry go to CLC’s own food pantry, which provides free grocery items for all students.

The students’ meals on Monday also contained information on other food resources in the community, like Thanksgiving meals and food banks.

“This year it was more important than ever that we continue the tradition of providing a Thanksgiving meal for our students,” Heppner said. “They have made so many sacrifices in 2020 to continue their education, as it is definitely a school year unlike any other. Beyond wanting to make sure our students had a meal to eat, we wanted our students to know how thankful we are for their resiliency.”

To-go bags sit ready for Central Lakes College students Monday, Nov. 23, in place of the traditional buffet-style Thanksgiving meal at the college. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch


Thanksgiving holiday plans are different for CLC students this year, too, with many forgoing plans for big family gatherings in light of COVID-19.

Jasmine Hanson will spend the day with just her immediate family this Thanksgiving instead of hosting dinner for a larger crowd.

“It’s kind of nice, though, because then I don’t have to spend three days cooking,” she said as she ate Monday in the cafeteria, where tables are fewer than usual to support social distancing.

Hanson and her classmates Dustin Smith and Jeenah Stern appreciated still having some sort of a Thanksgiving dinner at school.

“We don’t even have time to think about it,” Stern said of the holiday changes this year’s pandemic has brought, as she readied for a test right after lunch.

Renee Giles’ large family will celebrate via Zoom instead of coming together under one roof. It’s something, but it’s definitely not ideal.

“My grandma is scared to death right now,” Giles said. “… And it’s her birthday on Thanksgiving, and she’s going to be alone. That’s just the biggest thing.”

But, like other students, Giles is busy with her schoolwork and is happy to have some extra time to study this year.


Ashley Lenarz would normally celebrate with her grandma and other family as well, but will instead spend the day with her boyfriend. While she’ll miss the family, she also plans to keep herself busy with college and thinking about her educational future instead of dwelling on the pandemic.

“I’m keeping myself busy, and I’m focusing on transferring to Winona State,” she said.

While the students are all busy, the Thanksgiving meal at school was a welcome distraction of sorts. Many students grabbed their food and went on their way, but some lingered in the cafeteria, happy to be able to see friends.

“The cafeteria just looks like a normal day, and we haven’t really seen one of those in a long time,” Lenarz said. “So it’s nice to be able to gather with some friends and just talk for a bit.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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