A new report card on school food in Maryland gave top marks to just one of the state’s school systems — in Howard County — while most others received middling grades. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

A first-time report card on the state of school food in Maryland gives top marks to Howard County and finds that many districts fall short in providing salad bars, restricting sugar in meals and limiting vending machines to healthier items even after school hours.

Most of Maryland’s 24 school systems earned middling grades of C or C-plus in the report, including those in the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“More than anything, I hope it encourages school systems to pay attention to these areas and improve upon their work,” said Lindsey Parsons, coordinator of Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition of 20 groups promoting safe and nutritious eating in schools.

The group examined each of Maryland’s school systems based on 12 factors that organizers said are of concern to parents and public-health advocates. Results were released in a report in December, with plans for a webinar next month.

Howard earned the highest total score. Among categories in which it did well were offering salad bars, expressly allowing personal water bottles and posting information about snacks that are sold in cafeterias but that many parents don’t know their children are buying.

School officials in Howard said they appreciate the recognition, noting that they will continue to test and change their menu so that it includes healthy foods that students enjoy.

Howard conducts four or five tastings a year in middle schools and high schools so that students can sample potential new items, said Brian Ralph, director of food and nutrition services. The district has salad bars at all middle schools and high schools, and a pilot project at three elementary schools through a grant program. It has added more variety to its menu in recent years.

“We are very conscious of the fact that there is a correlation between healthy eating and academic achievement,” Ralph said.

Two other school systems rated grades of B-plus in the report, in Carroll and Frederick counties. The bottom of the list included systems in Allegany, Garrett and Worcester counties. The lowest-rated, Worcester, did not fully participate in the study.

Even low-scoring school systems met state and federal school food requirements, Parsons said.

The report credited nearly half of Maryland districts, including Montgomery and Prince George’s, for sourcing at least 25 percent of their food locally. It recognized five school systems for taking a stricter approach to sugar levels in food than federally required.

Montgomery was lauded for being the state’s only school system with a policy limiting foods with certain dyes and chemicals. But Montgomery scored lower on easy access to drinking water at lunch, school-based salad bars and limiting vending machines to healthier items even after school hours end.

Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition services in Montgomery, said the report card was too narrowly focused and not a fair reflection of the county’s approach. Twenty-five schools have salad bars, she said, but middle schools and high schools offer an entree salad daily, and fresh fruits and vegetables are offered at all schools every day. She also said elementary students who get school lunches are offered free bottles of water.

“The reality is, this report did not focus on the big picture,” she said.

Montgomery seeks out whole grains, fresh produce and items that are low in fat, sodium and calories, Caplon said. About 20 percent of food is made from scratch, including soups, sauces, chili, taco meat, chicken and beef barbecue, and salad dressings, she said.

“At the end of the day, we know we have students that can’t learn if they are hungry,” she said. “We have to find items that meet the guidelines, that are healthy and that a student will accept.”

Neighboring Prince George’s County received some of its highest marks for from-scratch cooking and menu variety. But it drew zeros on providing salad bars and offering transparency about food ingredients, nutrition facts and snacks offered in its cafeterias.

Prince George’s school officials said in a statement that menus are planned by child nutrition professionals and exceed minimum federal requirements. Lunch offerings include hot entrees, salad platters, sandwiches on whole-grain breads, fruits and vegetables, and nonfat milk, they said, while snack items comply with federal standards.

The report cards were mostly based on interviews with food service staff and an examination of food-related policy documents, menus and other materials, said Parsons, who four years ago co-founded the group Real Food for Kids — Montgomery.

The scoring was done on a bell curve. Without the grading curve, Parsons said, all of the state’s school systems would have failed.

In earlier years, the Healthy School Food Maryland coalition worked for change in food-related policies and practices at schools through legislative efforts in Annapolis. The report card is a way to spur change through incentives rather than mandates, Parsons said. The group plans to send recommendations to school systems.

“Now that they know they will be graded,” she said, “we anticipate they will work toward these criteria.”