Ashland School District has hired a cook manager from the Portland area to implement a district-run food service program next academic year.

Ashland School District has hired a cook manager from the Portland area to implement a district-run food service program next academic year.

Gema Soto, who currently works for the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, will become Ashland's food service director on June 1.

She will be tasked with creating the district's own food service program, which has been run by Sodexo Inc. for the past five years.

In March the School Board voted 5-0 to end the district's contract with Sodexo and implement its own cafeteria program.

"We're going to try to get access to the best possible food, but it's a complicated system, and we need to be able to conform to state and federal regulations," Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said Thursday.

"Gema's background and expertise really stood out to the (hiring) committee and so did her strong interpersonal skills," she said.

The committee interviewed eight candidates before selecting Soto, Di Chiro said.

Soto officially accepted the position last week. She did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

School Board member Ruth Alexander, who served on the district's food services committee, said she met Soto when the committee was doing research on cafeteria programs.

"She's just a dynamic personality and she seems to have that kind of bent to be interested in using local foods and in fostering the local gardens," Alexander said at Monday's School Board meeting, where Di Chiro announced Soto's hiring.

This summer Soto will hire a manager and servers to work in Ashland High School's cafeteria, which was run completely by Sodexo this academic year.

"She has a lot of work to do coming in," Di Chiro said.

Di Chiro doesn't expect students to see dramatic changes in the food service program immediately, because most of the changes will take time to implement, she said.

"There will be slow growth over time as we try to implement some of the strategies our community has an interest in," she said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.