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Willmar school food service serves more than 1 million meals each year

WILLMAR -- The nutrition service at Willmar Public Schools served more than 1 million breakfasts, lunches and snacks in the 2008-09 school year, and nearly 90 percent of the district's 4,100 students participated in meal programs.

Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition services for the district, provided the statistics to the Willmar School Board in an annual report Monday on the district's wellness policy. The meeting was a workshop meeting. In grades K-8, participation in breakfast programs was 87 percent to 90 percent, Derouin said. The district can provide breakfast free to students in those grades.

At the high school level, breakfast is free to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, 26 percent of students at the Senior High ate breakfast.

Participation rates for the lunch program were also high: 86 percent in elementary schools, 86 percent in junior high and 89 percent in high school. Many schools in the state have participation of 60 percent to 70 percent in upper grades, so Willmar students show strong support for the food service's offerings, Derouin said.

Derouin said the district works with an average of 100 students a year on special diets related to health conditions or food sensitivities.

Derouin described other programs the district offers, including a program for field trips and celebration meals that started in the 2008-09 school year. The school meal program can provide bag lunches for field trips and also can provide food for pizza parties or for grilling.

That program allows every student to participate in special events and ensures that all students receive an approved school lunch on those days, she said.

The district received a grant of more than $95,000 last year to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to elementary students in addition to the breakfast and lunch programs, she said.

Derouin said the district participated in the Farm to School Program, providing students with locally produced foods at least once a month. The foods include corn on the cob, dried beans and bison.

Another group that presented a report Monday was the Youth Energy Summit Community Greenhouse Project.

Derouin said she has worked with the group to provide fresh produce for students and plans to continue that effort. She said she'd like to try growing fresh herbs in the greenhouse and also to take students on greenhouse tours "so they understand how food is grown."

Senior High science teacher Rob Palmer said students have worked in the greenhouse at MinnWest Technology Campus for three years. The program has an understanding with the campus to use the greenhouse as long as it pays utility costs and maintains some of the flower beds on the campus.

The students also use a biomass burner to heat the greenhouse. The greenhouse is used for science class projects and used to grow produce that is sold to people in the community. Produce is also donated to the Willmar Area Food Shelf and is served at Willmar Senior High.

Palmer said some students who start going to the greenhouse end up going back because they enjoy it.

That's what happened for Dylan Huisinga. In fact, his class project didn't go that well, but he kept working at the greenhouse. "It was more fun than it looked," he said.

D.J. Dafoe, another junior, said he said he enjoyed helping the town become greener. "I feel cleaner," since working at the greenhouse, he said.

The students said they have enjoyed being able to deliver their fresh produce to customers. Rachel Johnson, a junior, said she had helped with a delivery to the food shelf. "It was a good experience," she said. "It feels really good inside."

Board member Dion Warne asked the students if they find themselves reminding their friends to recycle. All of the students nodded.

"Very much so," said senior Samantha Thompson. She said she points out to her friends that her reusable water bottle is friendlier to the environment than the bottles they buy each morning.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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