Annette Derouin, innovator in school nutrition, retiring after 26 years at Willmar schools
As director of food and nutrition services for Willmar, Montevideo and New London-Spicer schools, Annette Derouin was always on the lookout for a program that could offer a new way to feed kids. She brought locally grown food to school cafeterias, and has been honored by the state and national school nutrition associations.
WILLMAR — Early in her career with Willmar Public Schools, Annette Derouin visited a cafeteria on a Monday morning when she heard a child request breakfast, saying he hadn’t eaten since school on Friday.
“That about broke my heart,” she said in a recent interview. “If there was a program eligible for the children in this district, we were going to offer it.”
Derouin, 62, will retire at the end of the month after 26 years as director of food and nutrition. A registered dietitian, she’s overseen the preparation and serving of millions of breakfasts, snacks and lunches.
The job has its challenges, “but in the end it’s about feeding kids,” she said, as her eyes welled up, “and that’s what I did.”
Derouin joined the district in early 1996 and served as the district’s first full-time director. Since 2011, she has overseen nutrition programs for the New London-Spicer and Montevideo school districts plus Community Christian School of Willmar.
In 2020, the School Nutrition Association named her national director of the year, recognizing her for leadership, innovation and financial management. She was president of the state association in 2004-2005.
Derouin has seen many changes in school nutrition guidelines through the years, including expanded opportunities to feed students during a school day.
In her career in Willmar, Derouin has helped area schools comply with a variety of changes in federal nutrition guidelines and helped expand meal offerings.
The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, adopted in 2010, brought many new requirements with the goal of improving nutrition and combating childhood obesity.
Willmar had already met some of the new rules, like serving whole grain pasta and bread products.
Derouin adjusted menus in all the districts.
“The biggest pushback I remember was the fact that we had to restrict condiments because of sodium requirements,” she said. “I know there were kids carrying condiment bottles in their backpacks.”
Derouin said she tried to communicate with families about the coming changes.
“The program is very heavily regulated, and there’s not always a lot of say in how we’re going to do things,” she said. She explained the changes through newsletters and social media posts.
When she first started in Willmar, she said, she worked with a crew of dedicated head cooks to write down recipes the cooks had been preparing from memory.
Eventually, she developed a recipe manual with nutrition information for school food services. The district printed and sold them, raising $10,000 for the department.
Innovation in the cafeteria
Under Derouin, who grew up on a dairy farm, Willmar was a pioneer in the Farm to School program in Minnesota, teaching students about locally grown foods and incorporating the foods in meals.
The program included farm tours and cafeteria visits from area growers. Students ate wild rice, bison hot dogs, apples, cheese, tomatoes and salad greens.
When 50% of Willmar’s student body became eligible for free or reduced-price meals, it opened the door for additional nutrition programs, she said. “That allowed me the opportunity to feed kids in different ways.”
Elementary students receive a fresh fruit or vegetable as a snack each day — Derouin’s favorite program. All students receive free breakfasts. Students in after-school programs receive an after-school snack and an evening meal.
Over the years, she’s introduced foods that reflect Willmar’s cultural diversity. For example, a Hispanic employee helped her develop a proper Spanish rice recipe.
Deciding to retire wasn’t easy, Derouin said. She stepped down as director May 2, when Danaca Jensen took over as the new director in Willmar.
“I love what I do,” she said. “It was truly a hard decision to leave and retire. ... It’s the thought of ending a career, not just a job.”
Her husband, Chuck, retired a few months ago and has since worked as a substitute kitchen assistant.
“He’s been impressed with how hard they work and how dedicated they are,” she said.
Once they have both retired, they look forward to traveling, visiting their two children who live in other states and visiting family. She will continue to teach and consult part-time.
The partnership with Montevideo and New London-Spicer will end when Derouin retires. Community Christian School will still be served by Willmar Public Schools.
Since she stepped down, Derouin has trained the new director in Montevideo and continued working with Jensen. NLS has contracted with a company to manage its food service, she said.
The biggest obstacles she foresees in the coming year are continuing supply chain problems and staffing shortages, Derouin said.
Menus have been adjusted on short notice, depending on what foods were available, and that is likely to continue into the next school year.
When the pandemic came to Minnesota in March 2020, Derouin and kitchen staff members had just hours to prepare to feed students who would be studying at home.
Practically overnight — Montevideo had 24 hours and Willmar and NLS had 48 — the kitchen staff switched to preparing cold, portable meals.
They bought every cooler they could find and ordered more online. Bus drivers were enlisted to deliver the food.
Derouin said she was proud of the dedication of staff in the districts to feeding as many children as they could.
She will be missed
Those who have worked with Derouin offer high praise for the work she’s done.
Jensen said she’s worked with Derouin for about five years and has enjoyed learning from her. She called Derouin a recognized leader whom state officials sometimes call for advice.
“She’s always been someone that strives for the next best thing and doing things well,” she said. And, while Derouin is serious about her work, she can be a lot of fun to work with, she added.
Jensen said she hopes to keep the department’s innovative programs going.
Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm said Derouin has been an innovator and dedicated to feeding young people.
“She’s viewed as a leader, and we’re fortunate to have her,” he said. “She will certainly be missed.”
He said he’s confident that Jensen, who has worked alongside Derouin, will keep the department moving forward and “put her own stamp on it.”
Wade McKittrick, superintendent of Montevideo Public Schools, said Derouin led a turnaround of the district’s food service finances and operations.
“Her expertise accounted for ensuring high-quality meals while maximizing funding in order to keep costs down for families,” he said.
“We will all miss her in our department, the kitchen staff, myself,” Jensen said. “It will be hard to see her go.”