After COVID-19 closed schools for the rest of the year, school bus drivers are transporting food instead of students.

The sack lunches may be quieter passengers, but Mid Columbia Bus Company driver Dennis Cook said he misses the students and is glad he still gets to see some of them when he drops off meals at stops around Stanfield Monday through Thursday.

“It’s been nice to see some of the kids,” he said.

Staff from Stanfield School District have been taking turns riding along to distribute meals, and Cook said students get “really excited” when they see their own teacher at a drop-off.

Ricardo Martinez, a Umatilla bus driver for MidCo, said at first dropping off meals was “a little hectic,” but everyone has settled into a routine now.

“I love it,” he said. “... I was already going crazy at home, not going anywhere, so when my manager asked if I would do it, I said sure.”

Each day the drivers run the same route, stopping at various bus stops to provide a package of one breakfast, lunch and dinner for any child under age 18 who shows up. On Wednesdays, they also drop off homework packets for elementary school students, and on Thursdays high school and middle school students get their homework. Homework can be sent back to the school with the bus drivers at a later date if students don’t have a way to send it in electronically.

Martinez said he would encourage more Umatilla families to take advantage of the free meals.

“On homework days, we get extra people, so sometimes we’re running short on lunches, but the rest of the week, sometimes we’re coming back with 20 or 30 lunches,” he said.

Trista Thompson is one of the four MidCo drivers currently delivering free meals for Hermiston School District. The district is dropping off breakfast and lunch separately, in the morning and afternoon, to give students something to look forward to now that their regular routines have been upended.

Thompson said it’s gone “very well” so far, and she loves to see how excited the children are as the lunch bus pulls up.

“For a lot of the kids, it’s the one time they get out of the house, and get that little touch of freedom,” she said.

Katie Saul, director of business services for Hermiston School District, said as of April 17, the district had served a total of 23,316 meals since Gov. Kate Brown first closed schools on March 17.

“We started with just two bus routes, then increased to three, and now we’re up to four routes,” she said.

Since the meals are paid for by the same federal funding as normal school lunches, the same nutritional requirements for a grain, dairy, fruit and vegetable apply. Saul said most days lunch is some kind of sandwich with a fruit and a vegetable and a milk carton.

Chartwells, the company the district contracts its food service through, prepares the meals at Hermiston High School. Teachers are taking turns going out with the buses to help with deliveries. Saul said about two-thirds of the meals are delivered to stops around Hermiston, while one-third of families prefer to pick up a meal from the high school, Sunset Elementary School or West Park Elementary School.

When the state first mandated that schools close, school districts were also given a mandate to continue providing meals for students, so that no children who depended on school lunches for nutrition would go hungry. The meals are free to any child under age 18, regardless of whether they are a student in the district.

Morrow County School District posted on its website that in the first five weeks of school closure, the district has provided more than 21,000 meals to students. Buses deliver meals in Boardman, Irrigon and Heppner, and grab-and-go meals are also available at Sam Boardman Elementary, Heppner Jr./Sr. High and A.C. Houghton Elementary. On Fridays, the district sends home three days’ worth of meals for students.

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