Students have told jokes about cafeteria food for a long time, but in Howard County officials are boasting, not joking, about a recent study that praises the quality and healthful content of food offerings in county schools.
Howard County ranked first — with an A-plus rating — in a recent statewide review of public school systems' cafeteria offerings.
The rating comes from Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition of 20 nonprofit and business organizations that work to promote healthy, safe and locally produced food for students.
The first-ever School Food Environment Grades, released in late December, gave grades based on a dozen factors, including food variety, sugar content, nutritional information, salad bars, use of local produce and healthy vending options.
The Howard school system outranked 23 other jurisdictions in Maryland. Grades ranged from Howard's A-plus to an F rating for Garrett County schools.
The schools in Frederick and Carroll counties tied for second in the ranking with grades of B-plus.
Other local school system ratings included C grades for Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, and C-plus for Baltimore City and Harford County.
Howard's top ranking is a point of pride for Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services for the county system.
"It was quite gratifying," said Ralph, in his third year as nutrition chief. "We have many more students participating in meals. The quality, the variety and the choices have improved. In conjunction with our strict wellness policy, we are incorporating not only the physical aspects of food, but also the healthy aspects of food."
Ralph said the variety and greater health value of the menu offerings during the last three years have led to a 15 percent increase in the number of students who buy their lunch.
"We've got more entrees, and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables," he said. "What is not there is anything that's fried. Everything is baked instead. What has been deleted is anything that is high in sugar. There are a lot of fresh juices out there, as opposed to carbonated drinks."
"I'm not that surprised [at the high ranking]," said Brianna Swaby, a freshman at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "I know that Howard County schools are good in a lot of aspects. With more options, I'm more open to eating here."
The school system's top ranking was welcomed by The Horizon Foundation, a Columbia-based health and wellness organization that conducted a countywide campaign against sugary soft drinks. Foundation officials said that between the start of the campaign in 2012 and its 2015 conclusion, sales of sugary drinks fell by 20 percent.
"The conversation that we're having about healthier choices is seeping into all areas of the county," said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation. "The school system has been diligently working on this, and we're excited about their healthier choices."
During a recent lunch period at Wilde Lake High, a group of students gathered around a cafeteria cart that featured salads, fruits and vegetables and wraps.
Sophomore Carla Spooner's plate was filled with salad and cucumbers.
"I love salad," said Spooner, a student athlete who competes for Wilde Lake's field hockey, indoor track and outdoor track teams. "I've been a salad eater all of my life. I'll go home and eat more salad after school. My mom says that I have an athlete's body and I need to feed it right."
Sitting across from Spooner was freshman Aliyah Hodges, who said she doesn't usually buy lunch. She suggested the school add such fruits as pineapples, strawberries and mangoes to make the lunches more appealing.
Senior Marquis Bullett seemed satisfied with the variety of foods offered — though he said he would like to see a wider selection of juices.
"They serve lunches that you might eat outside of school," said Bullett. "So that makes you want to buy lunch here."
With just 30 minutes to eat lunch, it's important that students minimize time in the lunch lines. The layout of different food items pleased freshman Eric Ramos.
"Everything is all spread out, so you don't have to wait in line," Ramos said. "But what I like most is that they have healthy choices, and you can basically order what you want to eat."
Ralph said students' opinions are considered by senior leadership. He said when he came to the Howard County public schools, he wanted to enhance the food options and instituted "taste tests" at several schools to get student feedback on items that could be added to the mix. He also wanted to see more entree items.
"It's a process," Ralph said. "It's a question of listening, and being very open and amenable to ideas.
"We had a lot of interface with the staffs [at county schools]. We got students' and parents' opinions, because there's no point in preparing something that you think you will like that will not be consumed by kids," he said.
Howard County also placed first on the statewide food assessment in its use of local food products, often referred to as farm-to-table. The county works with nearby food and dairy producers in Frederick, Jessup and Hanover.
"We get 60 percent [from local vendors]," said Rosalie Edwards, area field representative for county schools. "We really try to provide things that are more local."
In Carroll County, the second-place score was greeted as an affirmation of policies and practices the school system has embraced to make food offerings healthful and appealing.
"We serve a variety of nutritious and good-tasting foods to our students, and have growing participation in all of our schools," said Stephen Guthrie, superintendent of the Carroll County public schools, in an email.
"We use students to taste-test new entries to our menus, and our cafe managers are always trying new ways to make our lunch and breakfast program attractive to our students."
For Howard County, Ralph said that, while it's gratifying to have its food rated finest in the state, he knows there's room for improvement.
"We want to expand our salad bars in the coming school year," he said. "We are looking at modifying the whole layout and design of our serving areas, to make them more attractive. It's not only what you serve, but also about the aesthetics.
"When you're No. 1, it's always hard to maintain your standing," he said.