We recently received an unpleasant surprise, but after looking into it, we decided to (considering the subject, you should pardon the expression) take it with a grain of salt. We’ll explain why.

The School Food Environment Grades project conducted by Healthy School Food Maryland recently ranked the public school systems of Allegany and Garrett counties among the lowest in the state when it comes to the quality and safety of food served to students.

Allegany County came in third from the bottom, with a D+ grade. Only Garrett County, with an F, and Worcester County — which submitted an incomplete report — were lower.

Healthy School Food Maryland describes itself as a coalition of organizations and individuals working for whole, real, local and safe foods for children in Maryland school cafeterias.

Let’s not jump to the conclusion that our local schools are serving up swill or were designated by the U.S. government to use the last remaining rations from World War II and the Korean War.

These criteria were used in the grading:

• Access to water and water bottles (Allegany and Garrett counties scored 2 out of a possible 4. The only two counties that scored as high as 3 allow students to have personal water bottles. Some schools don’t allow water bottles in classrooms, considering them a distraction or a safety hazard if their contents are spilled on the floor.)

• Use of local produce and farm-to-school programs. (Some counties have such programs; Allegany County scored a 0, while Garrett — which is major farm country — received a 3.)

• Policies banning artificial colors, flavors, and other chemicals in school food. (Only one county received a 2; Allegany and Garrett scored 1 each.)

• Access to healthier vending options (eight counties had a 4, one county scored 2 and all the others scored 1, including Allegany and Garrett.)

• Existence and transparency about a district-standing wellness committee or a school health council. (All counties had one or the other. Scoring depended upon committee membership and the transparency involved. No county scored higher than 2; Allegany and Garrett scored 1.)

• Reducing sugar in school food (no county scored higher than 3; Allegany got a 2 and Garrett 1).

• Transparency about a la carte foods (Do parents know if their children are spending their lunch money to buy snacks that are available but not mentioned on school lunch menus? Allegany and Garrett both got a 0. We disagree with this one; read on and we’ll tell you why.) 

• Transparency about school foods in general. (Are ingredient and nutrition information available for school meals and a la carte foods? Zeros for Allegany and Garrett, and we also question this.)

• Amount of scratch cooking. (How much of the menu is prepared from scratch? Score Garrett a 2 and Allegany a 1.)

• Variety and repetition of meals. (Give Allegany a 3 and Garrett a 2.)

• Policies on the marketing of foods of minimal nutritional value in school. (How do wellness policies protect children from marketing of foods that don’t meet the Smart Snacks in Schools requirements? Allegany county scored 4, which makes us wonder why it got a zero on a la carte transparency. Give Garrett a 0.) 

• Existence and quality of salad bars. (Allegany and Garrett counties both got zeros, as did 12 other school systems.)

More information on the food environment grade project is available at healthyschoolfoodmd.org.

We suggest that you also check the Allegany County Public Schools web page to find out about its school meals program — http://www.acpsmd.org/Page/1075.

The Meal Nutritional Information section says the school system: “offers healthy menus that are low sodium, low fat and packed with whole grains, protein, and lots of fruits and vegetables.”

You can view the nutritional information for each breakfast and lunch item. (So much for the lack of transparency in this regard.)

The Wellness and Nutrition section says “Schools play a powerful role in influencing student behavior. Dietary habits that contribute to student learning and lifelong health are influenced at school. 

“School meals programs, nutrition education, health and physical education programs help students build a foundation for a healthy lifestyle. The school environment must strengthen this foundation by encouraging children to make healthy choices.”

The website adds that all school meals must meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Maryland State Department of Education and explains how this is accomplished.

Maryland Hunger Solutions consistently rates Allegany and Garrett counties among the highest counties in Maryland in the quality and success of their public school breakfast programs.

It will take more than one report to make us believe our local school food services don’t take seriously the task of feeding our children and aren’t doing a first-rate job.

Sad to say, but the food some of these youngsters eat in our schools may be the best food — if not the only food — they eat all day. That includes meals the schools give them to take home.

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