Pre-K students get a taste for farm fresh future

Chris Parker, food service director for the West River Education District, makes macaroni and cheese (with butternut squash) with the pre-K group at Miss Martha's Creative Early Learning Program in March 2020.

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VERNON — North Carolina has long been the place where Chris Parker wanted to end up, having fallen in love with it when he was younger. When his high school sweetheart contacted him last fall and they realized they had been missing each other, it was a no-brainer to relocate.

“She reached out and said really nothing else had worked in her past relationships and life choices,” Parker said. “I waited for that phone call for 21 years.”

Still, it was not an easy decision for the chairman of the Vernon Select Board who has served as food service director at Windham Central Supervisory Union for about five years and created the local Seed2Tray program, which advocates for access to nutritious food for all Vermont children.

Parker said if he didn’t feel the program was in a sustainable position, he wouldn’t be leaving. He called his food service staff “amazing.”

“Chris created our farm to table program from scratch,” Superintendent Bill Anton said. “He advocated at the Statehouse and at board meetings for high quality, delicious food, for all students. He is a huge proponent of universal meals. While he will be missed, and we wish him well in North Carolina, he has developed a sustainable program that will benefit students for years to come.”

Kendra Novick, who served as his sous chef, will be his successor. She previously worked in food service at Vermont Yankee, Hinsdale Elementary School in New Hampshire and Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

“By rights, she should have been my boss,” Parker said, explaining that a lack of formal training was the only reason she wasn’t. “I was able to train her and get her into a position where she could take the reins and run with that program. That’s why it was very easy to submit my resignation.”

Parker touted Novick’s success in managing staff and transitioning meals back into buildings when in-person learning returned to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parker also served on the Select Board for about five years.

“Vernon is home to me and always will be,” said Parker, having many family members who reside in the community. “Vernon is the town that raised me and I wouldn’t be who I am without the experiences I got in that town as a child as well as an adult being on the Select Board.”

A notice about a vacancy on the board will be posted on vernonvt.org. The town will be seeking letters of interest for those who want to be appointed by the board to finish Parker’s term, which ends next March.

Parker described being “very proud” of the current board.

“We have a diverse Select Board with a wide age range and I think that has allowed us to view things differently, to talk about things,” he said.

Multiple times, Parker has gone into a meeting thinking he would vote one way. However, he said, he changed his mind after getting new information or a different outlook.

“I think that speaks volumes to the Select Board that we have — just the openness to communicate, no fighting, no bickering, no ‘I’m right, you’re wrong,’” he said.

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Still, Parker acknowledges that the board cannot make everyone happy. A lot of community members were upset when the board decided to temporarily close the fire department to rebuild it this past year, he said, “but now the department enjoys strong relationships with neighboring departments and has highly trained firefighters who are ready to go.”

Parker said new firefighter Tim Alexander recently went through training and “has fallen in love with it. He has done amazing things.”

“It’s because of new leadership,” Parker said. “It’s because there’s a new sense of pride back in that fire department that we have not seen in the last 15 years. That was a big decision and a very hard decision for the Select Board to do back in September or October but it was the right decision. But I couldn’t up and leave knowing I was the one who pushed for that closure.”

COVID-19 is another factor that kept Parker in place until now. He said the pandemic brought upon a lot of difficult decisions — such as closing the library, recreation center and playground — and he would have felt “very irresponsible” leaving town after declaring a state of emergency.

The town lifted its state of emergency after the governor did last week.

Parker is proud of giving town employees a 3 percent raise this year after not getting one in six years. Cuts were made to offset the cost and not create a deficit, he said.

Parker intends to stay involved with Seed2Tray. He said the federal government will continue to keep universal meal programs in place for this year so his group will either “help fundraise to help chew away at food and meal debt or maybe start scholarships if parents need money for it.”

“Food service will continue to be my career path,” he said.

He said southern Vermont is in “a great place” when it comes to ensuring access to nutritious food in educational, health care and nursing home settings. He wants to make sure the same is true in his new home, where he sees a “weakness” in the school system. He also will continue serving as a consultant for Novick, connecting schools to local farms and other resource.

Parker feels he is leaving both Windham Central and Vernon in good shape. He described school officials being deeply invested in the students and staff, and the town becoming a place for young families, especially with Horizon Early Learning Program founder Melanie Zinn planning to open a new child care program for 0-3-year-olds there.

Parker also noted how new Fire Chief Alex Dunklee has been able to get the department to thrive.

“Every time I talk with him, he’s quick to say he’s only successful because of the members under him,” Parker said. “And I’d say they are successful because of the quality leadership.”

Although he has made some trips back and forth to North Carolina, Parker said he had no intention on leaving until July. His official move is not slated until July 1.

Parker said he’s “moving on but I’ll still be very much involved there.”