Willmar Public Schools planning for free meals for all kids

Willmar Public Schools' meal program, particularly in elementary grades, has very high participation and that fact should help in planning for the fall, when Minnesota schools will provide meals to all.

A file photo of the Willmar Public Schools sign at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, where the administration offices are located.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

WILLMAR — Nearly every student in Willmar’s elementary schools eats breakfast and lunch at school, and use is high at other schools, too.

Food and Nutrition Director Danaca Jensen told the Willmar School Board last week that the high level of participation now should help in planning for next year, when all students will receive free school meals.

The Legislature approved the free meal program this year, and the governor has already signed it into law. The new law will permanently provide free meals for all students.

Jensen spoke about the program in her annual report to the board at its May 8 meeting.

Comparing current meal participation to 2018-19, the last “normal” year before the pandemic, she said, that use had greatly increased.


For students eating breakfast, the percentage has increased dramatically in the elementary grades, from 65% in 2018-19 to 99% this year. For the same time, it rose from 45% to 57% at the Senior High. It dropped, however, at the Middle School from 66% to 57%.

The percentage of students eating school lunch increased across the board, from 93% in 2018-19 to 96% this school year for elementary students, from 90% to 92% at the Middle School and from 74% to 86% at the high school.

The district served a total of 336,343 breakfasts and 397,611 lunches from September through March, she said.

Jensen said the department will continue to serve the same quality and quantity of food it has been serving.

A $38,000 grant will help boost the Farm to School program the district has had for many years, said Rose Erickson, the department’s assistant director.

This year, students have been served Minnesota-grown apples, lettuce, cheese curds and wild rice.

“We’re hoping for asparagus in the next few weeks,” Erickson said.

“I had kids that ate two or three lunches,” said board member Mary Amon. “How will that work?”


Mary Amon, Willmar School Board candidate
Mary Amon, Willmar School Board

Jensen said one standard lunch is free for everyone, but students who want more food will still need a lunch account to pay for it. A full second meal would be the adult price, which is currently $2.25 for breakfast and $4.95 for lunch.

If they want another entree or an extra sandwich, they will pay a la carte prices, which can range from 25 cents to $2.50, according to the district’s website.

“So parents will still need to put money in,” Amon said.

“We encourage households to continue putting money in those accounts, so they can continue paying for those extras if they need to,” Jensen said.

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In other action at the May 8 meeting, the board voted to not renew the contracts of three more probationary teachers, adding to the list of more than 20 who were not renewed in a similar resolution last month.

Human Resources Director Liz Windingstad said some of the layoffs are due to licensing issues, and those teachers could be back if the issues are resolved.

photo of Liz Windingstad, director of human resources, Willmar Public Schools
Liz Windingstad, director of human resources, Willmar Public Schools

Because the teachers do not have tenure, the board is not required to give a reason for ending their contracts. The teachers may ask to be given the reasons for the board’s action, though.

Enrollment in the district was 4,031 students, said Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase. Enrollment has dropped slightly in recent months, but remains near the enrollment average predicted in the district's revised budget.


Kathryn Haase.jpg
Willmar Public Schools Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase

The board approved an increase in admissions fees for school events. The increase was approved by superintendents at a Central Lakes Conference meeting last month.

Fees for students will increase from $4 to $5. Fees for adults will increase from $6 to $7. For Central Lakes Conference tournament events, the adult charge will be $8.

Gifts and donations accepted at the meeting totaled $44,838. The largest was a $28,000 grant from United Way of West Central Minnesota for the Child Guide Program. The program is funded by grants and hires child advocates in the elementary schools. A $400 grant for the program at Lakeland Elementary came from Bethel Lutheran Church.

Other donations were for baseball uniforms, team photos, boys and girls golf clothing and supplies, songfest accompanists and related expenses, music lessons and the FFA program.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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