As director of community wellness for A Red Circle, recent UMSL grad Nikki Engelbrecht helps improve healthy food access in north St. Louis County

by | Jan 8, 2024

The nonprofit organization provides access to healthy foods, education and the arts to families in north St. Louis County.
Nikki Engelbrecht

Nikki Engelbrecht, who graduated from UMSL with her bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College, is now working as the director of community wellness for A Red Circle. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Growing up in a rural community in a family without a lot of money, Nikki Engelbrecht was grateful for the local organizations that helped boost her family up. Now, in her new role as director of community wellness for A Red Circle, she’s helping to provide similar resources to families in north St. Louis County.

Founded by Erica Williams, A Red Circle is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “providing sustained, focused attention to the racial equity issues that impact north St. Louis County.” The organization focuses on improving access in three core areas: healthy foods, education and the arts.

“When our foundational institutions are embedded with systemic racism, it really hurts community members, especially in North County, where residents are impacted by red-lining practices,” said Engelbrecht, who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in December. “And businesses don’t invest in communities that lack resources.”

Engelbrecht, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College, was first connected to A Red Circle through a research project she worked on in a qualitative research class with Advising and Associate Teaching Professor Larry Irons. Immediately drawn to the organization’s mission of providing healthy food access, she started volunteering and then interned with A Red Circle for about a year before being hired full-time.

Erica Williams

Erica Williams is the CEO and founder of A Red Circle. (Photo courtesy of A Red Circle)

“I’ve worked with a lot of organizations because I’m a sociology major, but there was just something about A Red Circle,” she said. “We went in to just see what their mission was, what they were doing. It’s about healthy food access – that’s where I have primarily worked. But it’s really about holistic living, so we want to offer resources to our community members that cover everything.”

Engelbrecht had wanted to go to college since she was 17, but said the opportunity just wasn’t there for her at the time. Over the years, she had four children, all of whom were in marching band, and their jam-packed schedules didn’t leave much time for anything else. As her kids got older, she decided to finally embark on her college career seven years ago at St. Charles Community College, where she took classes part-time while also working in the library. She wound up transferring to UMSL for its affordability, receiving several scholarships including Chancellor’s Transfer Scholarship, Associate’s Degree Completion Scholarship, Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship and Barbara A. Kachur Memorial Writing Award Scholarship, and the flexibility offered through online courses. Plus, her oldest child, who graduated just as she transferred, had a great experience at the university.

“This is the first chance I’ve had to go,” she said. “I waited until my kids got old enough where they could be a little more self-sufficient. I’ve wanted to go to college since I was 17, so it’s awesome to be able to go back and to do it. I graduated summa cum laude, too, so I feel like I didn’t just do it, but I really did it.”

Engelbrecht said she had a fantastic experience at UMSL and is particularly grateful to the supportive faculty and to her academic advisor, Audri Adams, who helped her organize her schedule and juggle various responsibilities.

But with graduation in the rearview mirror, she’s excited to fully devote herself to A Red Circle and further a mission she feels incredibly passionate about. In her role as director of community wellness, Engelbrecht will assist A Red Circle’s food and farm manager on its urban farm, organize the community farmers market and food distribution, and assist team members in the organization’s other focus areas.

In partnership with Artists Anonymous, she’s also organizing a resource fair focused on holistic living, which will feature various outreach groups that assist in all facets of daily life. Hosted in partnership with Artists Anonymous, the event will be held on the UMSL campus at the Millennium Student Center on March 16 from noon to 4 p.m. Engelbrecht said they chose the location because of its easy access for residents due its proximity to Metro stops.

Much of Engelbrecht’s work will involve organizing the farmers markets held on the last Saturday of every month from May to October, which feature fresh produce grown on its own urban farm, the North County Agricultural Education Center, as well as produce supplemented through partnerships with several Black-owned farms in the area, including George Washington Carver Farms, Heru Urban Farming, Phi Global Farms and Ujima. The farm is expanding its offerings with bee hives for honey and chickens that will eventually provide eggs, and tours are offered during harvest season to educate residents about urban farming.

Engelbrecht will also organize Good Food Fridays, held every Friday during harvest season, in which A Red Circle passes out totes of fresh produce worth an average of $40 to families in need. Market days also typically feature a demonstration on cooking healthy food, and the tote bags include recipe cards so recipients know how to prepare the items within.

Engelbrecht is also excited to help the organization grow with the launch of its new facility, The North County Nexus, a family resource center anchored by a community grocery store, People’s Harvest, and a pilot research project investigating how healthy food access creates good health.

“A lot of our community members have issues with diabetes, hypertension and obesity, and part of the reason why is because we don’t really have a grocery store there where they can get healthy food access,” Engelbrecht said. “That means offerings of processed foods, unhealthy choices. We’re researching how much healthy food access really is for the community members.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske