Their test scores in reading may be better than the norm, but Baltimore County elementary schools earn a D when it comes to cafeteria lunches.
That, at least, is the conclusion of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes vegetarian and vegan diets.
The group released a report last week grading 11 of the country's largest school districts. Only the Albuquerque, N.M., district, which received an F, scored lower than Baltimore County.
The other Maryland school districts included in the study, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, each received a C-minus.
In issuing a D to Baltimore County, the group said its elementary schools should be more aggressive in teaching pupils about healthful eating habits. Studying the menu for the first month of the coming school year, the analysis found cholesterol content to be too high and fiber content too low.
But much of the point-docking was done because Baltimore County does not typically offer a vegan entree - one containing no dairy, eggs or other animal products.
`Kind of unfair'
"It does kind of seem unfair," said Karen Levenstein, director of Baltimore County's Office of Food and Nutrition Services. She added that the system's cafeteria meals are healthier than the typical brown bag lunch, and requests for vegan or even vegetarian meals are rare.
Levenstein, who said she would love to see pupils get more education on nutrition, said schools must strike a balance between what kids want and what's good for them. She said she tried offering more rice and beans, as the study suggests, but few ate them.
Furthermore, she said, serving soy milk, veggie burgers and other "designer foods" advocated by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is expensive and, thus, impractical without a significant increase in funding and demand.
Jennifer Keller, a registered dietitian who oversaw the study for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said elementary school is the time to help children develop lifelong healthful eating habits. (The study did not examine middle and high schools.)
"Kids are becoming more and more overweight, and nutrition is becoming more of an important issue," said Keller, whose group also opposes animal testing. "When you have a vegan entree, it's teaching them a healthy taste they'll develop and continue into adulthood."
Levenstein said the school system is taking steps to combat childhood obesity - within limits children accept. Some schools, for example, are serving oven-baked french fries and cooking with low-fat cheeses and mayonnaise.
The study praised Baltimore County for offering children fresh fruit daily and usually having a salad or other vegetable side dish. The elementary schools have no vending machines stocked with soda, candy and other fattening treats. The district received two bonus points for having one of the lowest percentages of calories from fat.
And for all the talk about food, Levenstein said, "It doesn't matter what we serve if they're not doing any exercise."