Activists urge Norwich’s Marion Cross School to take part in federal meals program

  • Second-graders Lauren Staggs, left, and Cassidy Loughman clean up leaves in the playground at Marion Cross Elementary in Norwich, Vt., on Monday afternoon, November 7, 2016. Students and teachers were helping with the school's annual fall cleanup day. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to John J. Happel

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/12/2021 6:51:08 AM
Modified: 11/12/2021 9:21:31 AM

NORWICH — Anti-hunger advocates say continued federal support this year for free meals for all students regardless of their family income level makes it a good time for Marion Cross School to participate in the federal school lunch and breakfast programs.

Free meals for all students, also known as universal meals, help ensure that children get the food they need to grow and learn, said Beth Roy, director of food and farm and place-based education programming for Vital Communities.

They also help reduce hunger and stigma for lower-income children who depend on free meals at school, and they can enhance student learning. Meal programs also can be integrated into schools’ curricula, helping teach children about the food that they eat, she said.

“It’s just a neat opportunity,” Roy said of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s extension through this school year of pandemic waivers that make the meals free.

Roy said she and other members of the Hunger Council of the Upper Valley would like to work with officials at SAU 70, which in addition to Marion Cross in Norwich also includes Hanover High, Richmond Middle School and the Ray School in Hanover, to help them participate in the federal program. The council played a similar role last year when Lebanon schools initially balked at offering universal free meals before changing course and opting in.

Marion Cross, which has about 300 students in grades preK-6, is one of just two public schools in Vermont that do not currently participate in federal meal programs, said Rosie Krueger, the state’s director of child nutrition programs. The other is Windham Elementary School, which currently has 16 children enrolled.

Vermont schools are required to participate in federal meal programs by statute. Schools that don’t want to participate or can’t may apply for a waiver, but Marion Cross has not done so, Krueger said.

Marion Cross officials have questioned whether this statute applies to them because they are providing school meals outside of the federal program, but the Agency of Education’s legal team says the statute does apply and the school needs to hold a public hearing and apply for a waiver, Krueger said. There is, however, no clear enforcement mechanism in the law, so Krueger and her team are left to simply encourage Marion Cross to participate as the school continues to be out of compliance.

“My understanding is that our program has worked well and that it has addressed all needs,” said Tom Candon, chairman of the Norwich School Board.

Still, due to AOE requirements, the board plans to have the issue of participating in the federal program on its agenda for its next regular meeting on Dec. 8, Candon said. He also said via email Thursday that Norwich had participated in a federal meal program last spring, but stopped when the program’s rules changed. The school does participate in a federal school milk program through which qualifying students can get free milk.

Marion Cross’ meals currently are available for free to income-qualifying families through a program that the district funds itself, Candon said. That includes about 6% of students. For families who don’t qualify for free meals, they cost between $3 and $5.50. A family of four must earn below $49,025 annually to qualify for free meals.

“We have not participated in the past because it has been easier and more efficient for us to manage the program in this manner, though we are looking at ways to improve upon the offerings we currently have available through our vendor,” Candon said.

The Norwich school, which was first built in 1898 but has seen major additions over the years, does not have its own kitchen, so meals, which are produced by the Manchester-based Fresh Picks Cafe, come from the Ray School in Hanover.

Candon also said that the district soon will be launching a strategic planning process, which is likely to include consideration of adding a kitchen at Marion Cross. The discussion would involve such questions as where it could be located within the school; cost; and capacity in the school’s septic system, he said.

Marion Cross first began serving school meals in 2012. Prior to that, a school counselor made sandwiches for children that needed them, according to a Valley News story from the time.

Benefits of participating in the federal program include reimbursement from Washington for meals, as well as specific USDA guidelines that schools must follow to ensure meals are nutritious and safe. USDA meals are required to include certain quantities of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and contain limited amounts of sodium. Participants in federal meals programs also are required to abide by certain food safety practices such as maintaining safe temperatures, and to provide meals that address students’ dietary needs or allergies.

It’s “more than providing any old meal,” Krueger said.

There also are benefits beyond food for families who qualify for free meals, such as internet discounts and reduced college entrance fees, Krueger said.

There are obstacles to implementing the federal program at Marion Cross, said Tim Morgan, program data and child nutrition manager for South Burlington-based Hunger Free Vermont. Because the meals at Marion Cross come from the Ray School kitchen in Hanover, that movement would require the SAU 70 to participate in meal programs in both states, Morgan said.

“That’s part of what has prevented this from happening previously,” Morgan said. “It’s complicated (but) it’s not a problem without a solution.”

The interstate school district to Dresden’s north, Rivendell, participates in federal school meal programs and some other schools without kitchens have sorted out how to participate, Morgan said. One solution might be for Marion Cross to source meals from a neighboring school district, he said. In the long term, Marion Cross could build its own kitchen, he said. Krueger said there are equipment grants available that might benefit Marion Cross should it move forward with a kitchen project.

Hunger Free Vermont is ready to help Norwich and Hanover schools, Morgan said.

“We would certainly relish the opportunity to help Marion Cross and all of SAU 70 navigate using the federal programs to serve meals,” he said.

Similarly, Krueger said, state officials would be happy to help.

In addition to helping to break down the stigma that can be associated with free meals, universal meals also have offered children and families a sense of connection during an uncertain time, Morgan said.

“Especially during a pandemic, it’s been really clear that meals have been an incredibly valuable source of continuity and stability and nutrition for kids all over the country,” Morgan said.

As a working mother of two, Roy said she appreciates the free meals her children receive at school in Hartland. She can send them off for the day with some snacks and a water bottle, knowing they will have meals ready for them at school.

“Good God, I love the universal meal program,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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