"With more than 18,000 employees on its payroll, BCPS is the largest employer in Baltimore County," Superintendent Dallas Dance said in a statement. "When teams of those professionals meet for extended periods — to discuss system or school business or for professional development, for example — we believe it is our responsibility to occasionally provide a light meal.

"Providing a breakfast or lunch on site during a meeting or workshop also is an efficient use of staff time and maximizes the opportunities for employees to interact with colleagues," he said.

The city school system is in the process of revising guidance for food purchases to comply with federal grant guidelines passed down by the Maryland State Department of Education last week.

When making food purchases, the district primarily uses federal Title I funds, which help supplement efforts in districts with the nation's poorest students, and Title II funds, which are to be used for hiring and training effective principals and teachers.

This year, a federal audit criticized the district's use of federal stimulus money — particularly the community engagement office's use of Title I money — on chicken dinners that ended up costing $99 per person because of poor turnout and other parent activities, such as makeover days and dinner cruises.

The auditors have recommended the school system pay back thousands in federal money it received in 2009 and 2010.

The audit drew outrage from congressional leaders, who urged the system to tighten its stewardship of taxpayer money, after a year when its fiscal management — including a Sun investigation that found administrator misspending on district credit cards — was repeatedly questioned.

De La Paz said that "the guidance on grant funding for food is not that clear."

"I'm toying with the idea of no grants for food," he said. "But because we're asking parents to come out during certain times, like dinnertime, I'm struggling with being draconian on no food."

The new federal guidelines stipulate that food purchases are allowable if they are "reasonable and necessary" to achieve the grant's goals and objectives.

However, the guidelines say such cases should be considered "rare" and "grantees would have to make a compelling case." There is "generally a high burden of proof to show that paying for food and beverages with federal funds is necessary to meet the goals and objectives of the grant," according to the guidelines.

Among the factors to consider when hosting an event with food: "how the meeting or conference will be perceived by the public; for example, will the meeting or conference be perceived as a good use of taxpayer funds?"

De La Paz said the district has recently contracted vendors to help it streamline food purchases and save money.

He said the district will not control what offices can order, as long as they stay within their budgets. He said, however, that as the district looks to provide more guidance to offices about food purchases, a standardized menu could emerge.

"Personal preference is really hard to constrain, but whenever I see people ordering seafood, I'd say, 'I wouldn't do that,' " he said. "But it's an investment we've made in autonomy, and sometimes that manifests itself in ways that make us feel uncomfortable."

The district's academic offices accounted for $750,000 of the expenses — $322,000 of which was grant funds — and ordered catered food several times a week with some of the more lavish menus, records show.

De La Paz said those orders showed primarily that "professional development for our staff has to be of a different variety, more intense, a different level of investment."

He said the orders reflect time demands on academic and school support staff who "burn the midnight oil" during the week and occasionally on weekends.

For example, in February 2011, teams gathered to grade student projects over the weekend, and the district's Office of Teaching and Learning spent $2,341 on crispy chicken salad, crab balls, sweet-and-sour chicken, shrimp, veggie and chicken fried rice, a cookie tray and drinks.

Several catering orders in one day reflect professional development that can last through mealtimes, De La Paz said.