School kitchens, including Willmar's, have been busy while students are home

When the governor ordered schools to close and to keep feeding kids, school cooks leapt into action — The first order of business, buy every cooler in town. Willmar Public Schools deliver two free meals to more than 2,000 children every school day.

Diane Lubbers, the second cook, prepares meals for students Thursday morning in the kitchen of Willmar Senior High School. Willmar Public School District has been providing meals to students throughout the pandemic. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — School buildings around the state may be empty of students, but their kitchens are still buzzing every morning.

In Willmar, about 2,000 children receive two free meals each weekday from the school district, about half of the school district’s student body.

On a recent morning, cooks wearing aprons, gloves and face masks were busy packing meals, free to any child younger than 18 who lives in the district.

School districts around the state prepare meals delivered by school buses. Gov. Tim Walz ordered it when he closed school buildings in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly overnight, schools switched from their regular hot menus to packing meals to go.


“So we bought pretty much every cooler in town, and ordered more online,” said Annette Derouin, the food and nutrition director for the Willmar, New London-Spicer and Montevideo school districts.

“I don’t think any of us could have anticipated having to do this,” she said, as she watched meals packed and loaded at Willmar Senior High School last week.

That day, lunch was a deli meat sandwich, chips, carrots, an apple and milk. The breakfast was an Uncrustable brand peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk.

The meals are from the same suppliers regularly used by the school district and follow the same nutritional guidelines, Derouin said.

Coming soon — cold pizza. Derouin said families were asked on her department’s Facebook page if they were interested, and more than 70 percent were in favor.

Derouin is always looking for a way to feed. She recently was honored as director of the year by a national organization for her leadership and innovation. When school ends, a summer meal program is expected to take over.

Different Minnesota Department of Education programs may be used to add to the service. A snack is to be added this week. There is a possibility of adding an evening meal, at some point.

The Willmar Food and Nutrition Facebook page is full of appreciation for the food and the program.


“I just want to say thank u so much, so so much for the food,” one woman wrote.

Recipients also praise the bus drivers, kitchen staff and paraprofessionals who help deliver the meals for their kindness.

Derouin said one of her concerns is that the meals are reaching about 55 percent of Willmar’s students, but 65 percent of the district’s children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

If there are people in the district not hearing about the meals, she said, she looks for ways to reach out to them.

Driver Steve Hunt said his route through southwest Willmar has stops with up to 40 kids, but one of them is barely used.

Derouin said she works with bus companies to tweak routes to try to reach more kids. “We just hope people come out to the stops.”

Because so many people have lost jobs because of the pandemic, Derouin said, she has sent applications for free and reduced-price meals to households that paid for lunches last year. It was recommended by the Department of Education.

Meals are delivered at a variety of stops in area school districts and may be picked up from some school buildings.


Information about meals and bus routes is available on the school district’s website, , or the Facebook page for Willmar Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services.

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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