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School district runs on its stomach:1.2 million meals in a normal year in Willmar

Briana Sanchez / Tribune Students at Willmar Middle School go through the lunch line Wednesday at the school in Willmar.1 / 5
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Mardell Larson, lead cashier at Willmar Middle School, left, checks student's lunch accounts Wednesday as they pay for their meal. The school district’s Food & Nutrition Services works to provide balanced meals using a colorful variety of foods, and cooks make many items from scratch, the director told the school board during a recent report. 2 / 5
Briana Sanchez / Tribune After Willmar students pick up their meal, they type in a personal identification number that is connected to their lunch accounts. The district serves full meals to students even when their meal account is running a deficit. 3 / 5
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Renee Carlson, left, and Lynn Woltjer serve food to students Wednesday at Willmar Middlle School. By the end of the school year, it is expected that Willmar Public Schools will have served more than 1.2 million meals and snacks.4 / 5
Briana Sanchez / Tribune Students at Willmar Middle School go through the lunch line Wednesday. Students type in their personal identification number connected to their lunch accounts.5 / 5

WILLMAR — By the end of the school year, meals and snacks served in the Willmar Public Schools are expected to total more than 1.2 million since September.

That's a pretty normal year for the district's Food & Nutrition Services. The meals include breakfasts, lunches, after-school snacks and meals catered to other school sites.

The Willmar School Board heard a report from director Annette Derouin during a workshop meeting April 24.

Derouin was asked by Vice Chairman Mike Reynolds about unpaid meal balances in the district. It is a growing concern, now totalling about $11,100, she said.

The district has a Cardinal Care Fund, which uses donations from the public to cover meals for hardship cases. That current balance is about $4,370.

"We don't have enough money in the Cardinal Care Fund to cover all the needs," Derouin said.

Donations to the Cardinal Care Fund may be sent to Willmar Public Schools, 611 Fifth St. S.W., Willmar, MN 56201.

Several years ago, the district began serving full meals to students, even when their meal accounts were running a deficit. Before that, younger students with deficits were given sandwich-and-milk substitute meals, and sometimes meals were taken from older students.

Now, all students are fed, but the deficits mount up if their families who are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals can't or don't pay their bills.

Derouin said her department and the school district's finance department make many attempts to contact families by phone and mail. They speak with school leaders to find out if a family has had a change in economic status. They encourage families who have not applied for free meals to submit an application.

In the past year, the district has begun taking some families to conciliation court. Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington said the district has had some success with that. But some balances just continue to grow, Derouin said.

Board member Laura Warne said the court has so far ruled in the school district's favor, and "at some point, they'll pay."

Derouin outlined highlights of the department's efforts in the last year.

The food service works to provide balanced meals using a colorful variety of foods, she said, and cooks make many items from scratch.

"We make our own lasagna and meat sauces," she said. "We try to give a good variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

Breakfasts are served in a variety of ways, from elementary students eating in their school gyms, middle schoolers eating in the cafeteria and high school students taking advantage of grab-and-go carts. Breakfast is free for all students in grades K-8.

The department continued with its farm-to-school program, which is more than 10 years old. "We've been doing farm-to-school since before it became a buzzword," she said.

Other local or Minnesota foods have been roasted root vegetable blends, red and yellow pepper rings, wild rice, colored carrots, corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes.

A high school class has been growing herbs for school meals. Their basil is in lasagna and spaghetti sauces, their parsley in seasoned rice blends.

The department asks students to taste test recipes, and based on the comments some recipes are tweaked while others are discarded, Derouin said. "We found out they don't like beans in soup."

Board member Scott Thaden said his children still eat jicama, which they first tasted at school. Derouin smiled and said, "then we're doing our job; we're introducing them to foods they continue to eat."

Superintendent Jeff Holm praised Derouin and her staff for their work and pointed out the importance of the department in a district with a large number of students from low-income families.

"Think about the valuable service that's being provided here to kids that might not otherwise have a good balanced meal once or twice or more a day," he said. "We know that kids who are hungry don't learn as well, so this is a very, very valuable and important department in the scope of our mission and vision and values."

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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