The lone diner in Walker Elementary's cafeteria, Gabe Duggan, didn't have much to say Thursday between bites of an oversized whole-wheat pretzel and spoonfuls of yogurt on the first day of the Ashland School District's Free Summer Lunch Program.

The lone diner in Walker Elementary's cafeteria, Gabe Duggan, didn't have much to say Thursday between bites of an oversized whole-wheat pretzel and spoonfuls of yogurt on the first day of the Ashland School District's Free Summer Lunch Program.

"But, he seems to always like everything, so that's good," said the 10-year-old's mom, Lisa March, who works for the school district.

Gabe ate most of his lunches last summer at the program, he said, which will serve free hot lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every weekday through Aug. 26 at Walker Elementary School, 100 Walker Ave.

"It's great," March said of the program. "For me, it was because I am working during the day, and rather than him snacking at home, I know what he will be eating here."

In addition to an entree, the meals include a bottomless fruit and vegetable bar and a beverage. There are free books, drawing and coloring activities, and puzzles set up for youngsters in the cafeteria. The school's playground is open.

Anyone 18 years old or younger can eat lunch for free, and the cost for adults is $2.

"It's not just for those who are in need," said Gema Soto, food service director for the school district. "The great thing about a program like this is that it builds a sense of community. It's an opportunity to introduce families with little ones to each other, and their children to a school environment."

Soto says she keeps the district's cost per meal under $2.75 during the school year, and the cost per meal for the summer lunches under $1.75.

Soto, who ran a similar program for West Linn-Wilsonville School District for seven years before taking a job with Ashland in May 2010, handles the free lunch program's kitchen work herself, and divvying out nutritious meals is her top priority, she said.

"I've been doing this program for a long time, and it's an important part of what we can accomplish through the school kitchen," Soto said. (See correction, below.)

Students who regularly eat healthy meals learn better, she said, and maintaining that routine, which some students lose during the summer, can help get them back into the groove of next school year much easier.

Last year, the first year of the Free Summer Lunch Program in Ashland, Soto served an average of about 50 people each day, her statistics from the program show. On the first day of the program last summer, she served 52.

However, the program last year was at Ashland Middle School, where the Ashland Family YMCA was renting facilities from the school district to support its summer programs; that's not happening this year, Soto said, and the YMCA participants consistently accounted for more than half of the people eating free lunches from the district last summer.

Last July, she served 1,275 people, and on her top day last summer, she served 95, she said.

"I think it's going to come around," Soto said, knowing the program has some ground to make up to top last July's figures.

"Eventually, I would like to see it grow," she said of the program in Ashland. "This is something the district was looking for when I took the job."

Soto said she is working to get the YMCA and other summer programs on board with the free lunches this summer.

Duggan, who is going into fifth grade at Walker Elementary this fall, chomped down his last carrot, sipped the last droplets of milk from his miniature carton, crushed it flat, and headed out the door for the playground.

He didn't have any suggestions for how the lunch could improve, he said.

"Kind of good," Duggan said.

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

Correction: An incorrect detail about the source of produce for the summer lunch program has been removed from this story.