College student food insecurity discussed at Wadena County Coffee Talk

Central Lakes College finds success by expanding food shelf offerings and creating an inviting atmosphere.

Wadena coffee.jpg
During the Wadena County Coffee Talk meeting on Monday, Dec. 5, the topic was food insecurity.
Screen Capture

WADENA — “Food insecurity can be a heavy and personal topic for some,” said Katie Heppner, the executive director of the West Central Economic Development Alliance. “Entering into the holiday season, a lot of joy comes with this time of year and it can also bring a lot of anxiety and challenges.”

During the Wadena County Coffee Talk meeting on Monday, Dec. 5, Heppner invited her husband, Erich Heppner to speak about the topic of food insecurity.

Erich Heppner, director of Student Life at Central Lakes College, spoke about work that has shown results at the college level. He explained that in 1978, Brainerd Community College created a food shelf for students. While attending the college in 2006, he worked in the evenings, but occasionally came up short on grocery funds. So, he “reluctantly” utilized the food shelf, but only when his peers were not around. He said there was a deep-rooted stigma at the time.

After beginning to work at the college, Heppner said an immediate goal of his was to reduce the stigma and improve the food shelf.

“In 2015, student leaders got serious about improving the food shelf,” he said, noting a survey was conducted that showed many students (about 48%) skipped meals or struggled to eat a balanced diet. “I felt really bad about the numbers; we needed to do better as an institution.”


The first issue addressed was the bare shelves and atmosphere. The vision was to create a “mini mart” with ample choices and an ambiance that was inviting.

“During COVID we were able to more than double our square footage,” he said.

Rebranding followed, and the work led to the opening of a new basic needs center this past summer. In addition to food, personal hygiene products are also available, free of charge. A substantial increase in student usage was recorded. Heppner stated that about 400 students utilize the food bank weekly, and in 2022, about 53,000 pounds of food had been distributed.

“Local grocery stores have been great at donating,” he said, noting the food insecurity rate has dropped almost 20%. “I’m happy it is going down, but 32% is still too high.”

Heppner also helps with Ruby’s Pantry in Staples. He said Wadena County's food insecurity rate is about 11.3%.

Heppner said Ruby’s Pantry has helped families since it began serving the county in 2020. He said, on average, there are 250 households served each month.

“Food banks are a great way to stretch a dollar,” he said. “Before we knew about food banks we went to the store with coupons. We were getting grocery carts of food before and now we get pallets.”

The newest initiative is to expand the college food shelf program by purchasing fresh produce and fruit directly from farmers.


Information was presented to show food insecurity rates in Wadena County.
Screen capture

What To Read Next
Get Local