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Driving Meals Hundreds Of Miles, In Mud Season, To NEK Families

People standing in front of a bus wearing silly hats and cloth facial coverings.
MaryLou Bonneau, Courtesy
North Country Supervisory Union staff are driving hundreds of miles to get meals to students each week.

The North Country Supervisory Union in the Northeast Kingdom is the largest in the state, covering 520 square miles. And in the first of a two-part story, Erica Heilman visits Derby and Troy elementary schools to talk with some of the people traveling hundreds of miles each week to deliver thousands of free meals to school children.  

April really is the cruelest month. Particularly in the Northeast Kingdom. Particularly for a bus filled with containers of turkey and mashed potatoes. Here’s the head of busing at Derby Elementary, Marston Cubit:

Marston: “Mud season’s mostly passed. The towns are primary keeping up with it pretty decent. It’s still back roads and still a little rough. You gotta pay attention. It’s not like driving high school kids.

“We have a box of trays of meals, and if you slam on the brakes, there’s going to be a mess. I liken it to when I’m driving a bus route with pre-K kids. Pre-K kids are 3- and 4-year-olds. You drive a little more cautiously than you would if you were driving a sixth grader. They don’t fall over or fall out of the seat as easy. The meals, they can’t hold on.” 

Here’s MaryLou Bonneau, food service manager at Troy Elementary:  

MaryLou: “Well here, we’re very rural. We leave school about 10:30. And our bus route takes at least two hours because of the ground we cover. We’re on back roads, and some of them right now have frost heaves and mud, and the other day we were in a snowstorm.”  

This is Jen Theroux, a paraprofessional at Derby School who’s now delivering meals: 

Jen: “We drive my bus all the way up to Holland Pond Road, which is a 25-minute ride just from like, the center of Holland to this one house.”  

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Me: “You’re going how many miles for one house?” 

Jen: “For that one house, about – I would say 10 miles.” 

Me: “So what do you talk about for 10 miles?”  

Jen: “Yesterday’s topic was turkeys. There are a lot of turkeys out right now. We’ve been seeing a lot of toms and a lot of jakes, which is exciting.”  

MaryLou: “We have a family that’s way out there, and they are on our bus route, but because of their location, it would add an hour to our bus route. So we were trying to figure out how to get them meals. There were three students.

“So what we do with this family is, their meals are picked up by the post office delivery person, it depends on who it is, it’s Heidi, Carissa or Holly. And then they leave them at the end of their route to another friend of mine, Debby, and Debby will take these personally and deliver them to the family’s cooler. These ladies do this every day for me.”  

This is Jason Marcoux, food service manager at Derby Elementary School:

Me: “When this first happened and you heard there wasn’t going to be any school anymore, what was the first thing you worried about?” 

Jason: “The kids. Feeding the kids. That’s what we do. We have a percentage that are free and reduced, and you know, their wellbeing. Their immune systems are more vulnerable than people in their teens and 20s, these are elementary kids. So making sure they’re getting what they need for nourishment, that could mean life or death for ‘em, basically.”  

A school meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, oreos and chocolate milk.
Credit MaryLou Bonneau, Courtesy
Delivering turkey and mashed potato meals in a school bus, in the state's largest supervisory union area and over mud season roads, isn't just a job for the drivers, but an act of heart and soul.

Me: “What population of the student body is free and reduced?” 

Jason: “I think we’re about 40%. So, it’s a pretty big number.”  

MaryLou: “The families that we serve, they’re on all different scales. We have a lot of kids actually living right in town, in apartments. And some kids, their families are doing the best they can with what they have, but some families don’t have everything that everybody else does.

“We have a family that I know is really struggling with food, and I have a backpack program that I send home extra stuff on the weekends, because this family is struggling to even get to the food shelves. A lot of people are temporarily out of work, and this is a way to help them have the ends meet. So they don’t have to worry so much about putting food on the table for their kids, which they can do, but this just helps them take some of that ease of worrying about it.

“There’s a few families that are actually, mom might be going off to work but the older brother and sister are watching the younger ones, and this eases their mind that we show up with lunch and they don’t have to worry about what the kids are doing for lunchtime.

“But when I place my orders each week, I see what’s happening with the prices that I have to pay for products. I was ordering a case of eggs which is fifteen dozen for $19.43. Now they’re up over $50. If I’m seeing that, these parents are seeing the same thing, and they’re gonna start having to pick and choose what they buy to put food on the table, which is a really sad thing. There’s families that will go without.” 

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Jason: “I actually have personally heard from a lot of parents about how excited the kids are when the bus shows up. Because it’s their new routine. They don’t know what they’re getting because I don’t put out a menu, so it’s a surprise every day and I think they enjoy that. With having to be quarantined or stay at home, that’s the highlight of their day. And we’re providing that for them.” 

MaryLou: “We’re the common ground for them to still stay connected with the school. Yeah, they have to do their schoolwork and stuff, but they don’t have that bus showing up every day and familiar faces. You know, just to give them a little lift. That we’re there for them. It’s more than just a job for me. I feel I put my heart and soul into it.”  

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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