Baltimore County Public Schools raised its grade this year to a "B" for the food it served in 2017 from Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition of organizations advocating for high-quality, healthy food in school cafeterias, school officials announced Friday.
In 2016, the county received a "C-" with only 16 points. This year, however, the county earned 28 of 48 possible points for 2017. A school official said the score increased due to the county's efforts to use locally sourced food and also because its websites display daily menu items and the nutritional information for the food it serves.
"We want our families to have more information about the quality of the food we serve and to make better decisions about the meals they eat in our schools," said Karen Levenstein, director of the BCPS Office of Food and Nutrition Services.
In Baltimore County, locally sourced food refers to produce grown in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and chicken raised in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Healthy School Food Maryland rated all 24 public school systems in Maryland. School systems earn up to 4 points in 12 categories, that include transparency of nutritional information; presence of vending machines and items vended; presence of a wellness committee or health council in the school; availability of drinkable water; menu variety; made-from-scratch foods and salad bars; and policies limiting artificially colored or flavored foods.
Counties are rated by volunteers from the coalition. They work with the school systems to gather relevant information and learn the systems' policies are, either through the policies themselves or interviews with officials.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh signed a pair of bills at a City Hall ceremony Thursday. One bans the use of foam food containers in the city and the other stops restaurants from offering sodas and other sugary drinks as part of children's menus.
In Baltimore County, for example, the school was graded on its policies surrounding vending machines based on written policies and documents, but an interview with Levenstein furnished the information regarding how much food in the system is sourced locally.
High marks went to Howard County with an "A+" and Anne Arundel with an "A-." Four other school districts, including Baltimore City, earned a "B." Carroll County and Harford counties both received a "C-," while Cecil, Garrett and Worcester were graded "F."
Baltimore County earned the most of its points for a la carte transparency, meaning it lists all a la carte options, like chips, pretzels and other snacks, by brand name and flavor on its nutritional information website.
For transparency around full meals, and not just a la carte options, the county earned 2 points. The system was knocked because, while it provides nutritional information, it does not show full nutritional labels and sugars are not included.
"One of the things that I know is a big goal is to have every bit of our ingredient lists available to parents," Levenstein said. "I am falling short on that. That's a goal that I have personally with my staff, that we will look at putting all those labels out there."
Menu offerings range from grilled cheese sandwiches and corn dogs at the elementary level, to chicken alfredo, jicama and roasted butternut squash at the secondary level.
The school system also scored well in the potable water category with its policy of allowing students to carry water bottles while they are in school all day, and because free, drinkable water is available anywhere meals are served.
Baltimore County scored lowest in the "chemicals" category, as it follows federal guidelines regarding what types of flavoring and coloring additives are acceptable, but does not take any extra measures.
County schools also lost points for their lack of made-from-scratch cooking as well as the way vending machines are operated; although the machines are shut off during the school day, they offer options that aren't considered healthy.
The Healthy School Food Maryland website acknowledges that scratch cooking can be difficult in larger school districts, such as Baltimore County, which enrolled 112,000 students in 2017, according to state data.
Kent, Somerset and Washington counties are among school districts that scored higher for scratch cooking, but they all have smaller enrollment numbers: Kent had only 2,000 enrolled students, Somerset 2,900 and Washington 22,000.
Schools can't invest in just one criterion to see a significant score boost, said Lindsey Parsons, who oversees the Healthy School Food Maryland coalition. Districts need to have a broader approach and can't invest in just a few categories, she said.
"If this continues, if they keep the rubric the same, then maybe each year one of those measurements I could probably bump up," Levenstein said. "That would be the goal."
Parsons said parents should care about school meals because they are an essential part of a student's day.