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Food service program off to good start for three west central Minn. school districts

WILLMAR -- Montevideo kids get to keep eating Super Nacho Spud Bites and Crispitos at school.

Students continue to have build-your-own wrap days in New London-Spicer.

And in Willmar, the popular burrito is still around at lunchtime.

Keeping some favorite items in each of these three school districts was an important part of bringing them together under one nutritional director last fall.

And although Annette Derouin needed to bring all the districts together under a common menu, "I also needed to listen to them." Derouin was head of Willmar's food and nutrition services until last summer, when Montevideo and New London-Spicer signed contracts to share her services for all three school nutrition programs.

The shared services agreement grew out of a series of meetings of area superintendents a year ago. The group discussed ways districts could work together while maintaining their separate identities.

The food service collaboration has led to increased participation in school meal programs, and the combined buying power has helped all three districts save money on food purchases.

Derouin said recently that she can't take all the credit for the transition. The head cooks have come on board with the changes and have talked through issues as they arose. "They've really stepped up," she said.

The cooks have worked well together and have shared ideas about what's working and what's not, something that's especially important in this first year, she said.

"We feel it's off to a very good start," said Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller.

So far this school year, Montevideo has served about 4,300 more meals than at the same time a year ago. "It's a marked increase," he said.

Heller said he hasn't heard any complaints about the meals. He considers that a good sign, because he generally hears complaints more often than compliments.

In general, he said, people seem to be pleased with the menus and the quality of the food. He has been told that a lot less food is being thrown out.

The menus offer alternate choices for students, and they seem to like that, he said.

The collaboration was a first step to see how the arrangement might work, Heller said, and he expects it to continue. "It's one of the smoothest cooperative efforts I've been involved in."

Heller credited Derouin's energy and dedication for the ease of the transition.

It is an arrangement with a large number of moving parts.

Derouin acts as the food service supervisor in Montevideo, but NLS has a supervisor on site and she offers support. She spends about twice as much time in Montevideo as in NLS.

Community Christian School of Willmar contracted with Willmar to provide its school meals this year. Willmar's cafeterias have long provided meals for the Area Learning Center and several Head Start locations, too.

Derouin and her staff have developed a full-page check-off list of menus, online newsletters, special events and school calendars to follow each month. "I had to have some way to be sure I didn't forget something for one of the schools," she said.

"There's a huge process here," she said. It includes coordinating food orders, menus, nutrition standards and wellness policies for all the locations.

Derouin said she was able to find ways to keep district favorites in place when she developed the menus.

The Montevideo favorites, tater tots smothered in nacho toppings and a burrito with chili on top, were kept, as was NLS's sandwich wrap specials. Districts sometimes share their ideas for student favorites, too.

Derouin orders government commodities and other foods for the entire program.

The other schools had been feeding students fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains but not as much as Willmar had been.

"It's not that they weren't doing OK," she added. "It's more to enhance what they were doing."

Students are now eating more whole foods and fewer processed items. The transition to whole grain breads and pastas and brown rice was handled by using blends at first.

Using the whole foods and fresh foods can sometimes increase costs, but Derouin hoped it would be offset by increased participation and coordination.

Breakfast and lunch participation has increased each month during the school year, she said. The program hasn't surveyed its young clientele yet, but she believes the growing numbers are a good gauge of satisfaction.

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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