Bertha the Lunch Bus

The bus used to get food to children for the Milton-Freewater Unified School District’s summer lunch program will benefit from a state grant.

Bertha the Lunch Bus, as the petite rig is known to her fans, has been chosen to receive a makeover.

The Milton-Freewater Unified School District recently received a $17,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Education to make improvements to Bertha, which has been used over the last three years to ferry food to hungry kids for the district’s summer lunch program.

The little bus has had its share of age-related ailments, including alternator issues and blown tires. The grant money will help rejuvenate Bertha inside and out as it heads into a fourth year of service.

Currently adorned with cartoonlike characters of fruits and vegetables, the bus will sport a new paint job in the district’s colors of crimson and black. A side window similar to that on a food truck will replace the current, back-door distribution point.

A new awning will shelter Bertha’s customers from summer sun and showers, while new equipment will make interior operations more functional.

Milton-Freewater school officials said at Monday’s board meeting they are planning to add an educational component to the summer meal program. Ideas being considered include weaving in a group story time as kids eat and individual reading assignments.

Bertha’s “mom,” er, driver is beside herself with excitement. Missy Miller, lead cook with the school district, is behind Bertha’s wheel all summer long. She first prepares the food at Freewater Elementary School with an assistant, then loads it all into Bertha to make four lunchtime stops.

In addition to feeding up to 100 children in Freewater’s cafeteria, the meal program delivers about 150 lunches five days a week for much of the summer. Food and operation costs are paid for by the state, Miller said.

The program fills a need in the community that Miller sees up close every time she distributes food, be that at Yantis Park, the city library or Baker Boyer Bank’s parking lot.

At each location (a fourth one is currently being decided for next summer), Bertha is enthusiastically greeted by children up to age 18, many of whom depend on the free lunch to provide most of their daily nutrition.

“These are the kids who show up every day and take everything that’s offered. I would say that’s the majority,” she said.

“The ones who come for the novelty or the fun of it, they don’t want the apple or they don’t want the orange. The other kids are hungry.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.