Three Southern Maryland school systems ranked in the state’s top 10 for healthiest school environments last year, according to a new report released by Healthy School Food Maryland.
Based on a scoring sheet that assessed 13 areas of nutritional practices in all state jurisdictions, St. Mary’s County schools tied for third place with Baltimore city and Kent and Frederick counties, with a score of B+, or 87%. Calvert tied for seventh with Montgomery County at 85%, while Charles scored at 81%, finishing ninth out of the state’s 24 school systems.
Prince George’s County earned 65%. Worcester and Cecil counties received a grade of F, scoring the lowest in the state at 58% and 56%.
Howard County schools received a 100% score, maintaining its rank at the top for the second consecutive year, with Anne Arundel following at 94%. In the second year of the nonprofit’s review, Healthy School Food Maryland reported an 8% overall improvement in school nutrition since 2016, after adding a new category to their scoring sheet to account for healthy vegetarian options, for which school districts earned an average of 45% of possible points. From 2017 to 2018, scores for all Maryland school systems improved.
Health School Food Maryland scored local school systems from 0-4 on items like menu transparency and variety, healthfulness of vending machines, access to potable water in schools, programs like scratch cooking and farm-to-school, and chemical additives.
St. Mary’s won 4 out of 4 points on a la carte transparency, marketing and its robust farm to school program.
“Since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act came out in 2010, they have very strict guidelines and regulations of things we have to include in our menus,” Megan Doran, director of food and nutrition services for St. Mary’s public schools, said last week.
“We have introduced more fresh fruits and vegetables, we have used more local produce, we have really built on our farm to school initiatives, basically just promoting [healthier] options for kids to have a variety of different foods to eat,” Doran said.
“We’ve implemented the online menus, with all the nutritional information listed for each item,” Doran said. The menu is interactive — students who may have allergies, for example, can search the menu for foods safe for consumption by using a tool to “black out” all items containing those allergens, Doran said.
The three Southern Maryland school systems offer their menus on Nutrislice.com.
“We try to make it more user friendly for parents and students as well, so they can make choices before they even get to school,” she added.
St. Mary’s public schools partner with a Hagerstown meat producer to source locally grown meats to be used in county schools throughout the year, Doran said. The school system participates in the Maryland Homegrown School Lunch Week, showcasing local community farmers and produce from the Loveville Produce Auction at an elementary school for one week in the school year.
Calvert County schools scored the highest allowed points in transparency and scratch cooking.
“Our county continues to offer a number of scratch-made items as the students seem to prefer these to the pre-made/pre-packaged versions,” Valarie Parmer, nutrition specialist, wrote in an email. “One of our best-selling entrees is soft tacos/taco salad day. We continue to make our taco beef from scratch because students still prefer it over the pre-cooked beef crumbles.”
Scratch cooking — an alternative to packaged food products — is popular among students, the report indicated, but can be difficult to accomplish safely in practice, William Krueter, food service supervisor for Charles public schools, said last week. Charles schools were given a 2 out of 4 score on scratch cooking, while St. Mary’s scored a 1.
“School systems for years have [relied on] heat and serve” options, Krueter said.
Charles County schools have offered some scratch kitchen options, like sweet chili pork over whole grain rice or beef and noodles, but “the move to regain the skills with workers is something that has to be done over time. There’s really no comparison between what you might do at home to what we do when we feed 14,000 meals at lunch, not the same preparation methods,” Krueter said, adding it’s more cost-effective to use packaged foods and it’s safer from possible contamination.
Charles County was awarded 4 out of 4 points for a la carte transparency, and received 3 out of 4 possible points for menu variety, added sugar and farm to school foods.
“We do a week of farm to school [menu options] in the beginning of the school year [with] mainly local procurement,” Krueter said said last week.
“We use that as kind of a test bed to see what kids will like,” Krueter said, later noting that compiling a variable menu that will appeal to most students is difficult, like replacing canned corn with locally grown corn on the cob, an item on the schools’ menu twice a month.
Charles County secondary schools also feature a salad of the week, like taco or chef’s salad, he added. In the last few years, the school system has started offering more salad options in elementary schools, too.
“We watched our fresh vegetable consumption in the middle and high schools rise,” Krueter said.
“We’re growing healthy eaters,” Charles schools food service supervisor Crystal Richardson said, but, “We walk a very fine line, because we do provide healthier options, but we do still need to retain the [food’s] likability for the students.”
Krueter said the system has also expanded its meatless options in schools, available every day in district schools to accommodate parents who wanted vegetarian items for their kids.
All three counties, like most other Maryland schools, received a score of 1 on chemical additives, which include synthetic food dyes and preservatives in highly process foods.
While Calvert and Charles counties received scores of 3 and 2 for salad bars in public schools, St. Mary’s was scored at a 1. On access to safe drinking water, St. Mary’s and Calvert schools received a score of 3, while Charles was scored at a 2.
St. Mary’s schools have one salad bar, at the Chesapeake Public Charter School, Doran said.
“We are looking to possibly introduce some salad bars at the high schools and middle schools,” she said, adding that the equipment cost is one issue.
With concern over elevated lead levels in some state schools, only Frederick and Kent counties received the highest score on potable water access “for expressly allowing personal water bottles and putting water bottles on their school supply list,” according to the report. “Other districts have either done nothing, or worse, forbidden students from bringing personal water bottles to school,” the report said.
“Our department has purchased water bottle refilling stations that are being installed at each of our schools to promote water consumption,” Parmer wrote about Calvert schools.
For the full report, go to www.healthyschoolfoodmd.org.