More students are eating cafeteria lunches since the Ashland School District ended a contract with its former food service provider, Sodexo, but not enough to bring the district's program into the black during its first year running school kitchens.

More students are eating cafeteria lunches since the Ashland School District ended a contract with its former food service provider, Sodexo, but not enough to bring the district's program into the black during its first year running school kitchens.

Ashland schools are serving about 40 more lunches a day compared with the same time last year, said Gema Soto, district food service director. It's not a huge increase, but it's progress, she said. "We still need to find that balance between how much organic produce we can offer, the amount of scratch cooking that can be done, while taking into perspective available funding."

Following the food service program's shortfall of around $97,000 in the 2009-2010 school year, when it was headed by Sodexo, the district last year came up $211,000 short.

Additional labor costs, one-time purchases, and a 17 percent cost-of-food increase during the beginning of 2011 all led to the loss, Soto said.

"We've been experimenting a little bit this year," said Soto, "not nearly as much as last year, but we are still figuring out how to make it all work."

After Sodexo's departure, the district spent about $50,000 buying out the necessary kitchen equipment and leftover food owned by its former provider, she said. And for a returning cost of about $160,000, the district also hired eight new employees to fill vacant positions left by Sodexo.

Soto put another $15,000 away last year to ensure the district would be enrolled in this year's U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost lunches to more than 100,000 schools across the country annually. This is the first year the entire district is enrolled in the program, she said, which should help cut costs.

"At some point this is going to be a break-even program," said Soto. "It's just going to take a few years."

Unplugging the deep fryers at all the schools was one of the first things Soto did when she took the job in Ashland during the summer of 2010, and maintaining a healthy menu is one of her top priorities.

"Oh, the kids complained," she said, "but we've been preaching for years that our kids need to eat healthier, eat more vegetables, and I thought we should put our money where our mouth is."

A new partnership this year with Rogue Valley Farm to School program allows ASD to offer one locally grown fruit or vegetable a month for an entire month in all of its schools. This month, it's apples; September was tomatoes, she said.

The high school also offers students at least one scratch item per day in its cafeteria, and although processed food still makes up a large part of the menu, Soto said the district is moving away from it, in favor of scratch.

"There is no just slopping the food on the plate," Soto said. "They need to have something fresh every day."

Every school in the district has a functioning garden, she said, but the high school, middle school, and Bellview and Helman elementary gardens are the only ones that produce enough to supply their cafeterias — though still inconsistently.

"It's no where near enough to feed the entire school, of course," said Soto, "but when it's available, it's really nice to have."

Nate Hinton, 18, senior at AHS, said he can see improvements in the food since the school districts took over cafeteria responsibilities from Sodexo, last year.

"The food is good, it's not as fake tasting as it was before," he said. "They're actually cooking it here, and that's what I like to see in the cafeteria."

Jordan Thompson, 17, senior at AHS, said he doesn't see much of a change in the food since he arrived at the school.

"It's not amazing or anything, but it fills you up," he said. "I usually try to go down to Safeway and get something to dress it up with "… I mean, come on, it's school lunch; it's never that good."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.