So Klatko was ecstatic, though not surprised, to learn that Howard County received an A-plus from the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which issues its School Lunch Report Card detailing how well school districts nationwide meet federal guidelines for healthful school lunches at elementary schools.
Howard's score tied for second with school districts in Knox County, Tenn., and Omaha, Neb. The only school district with a perfect score was Pinellas County, Fla.
The group said that it sent out surveys to about 100 school districts nationwide and then probed the findings at nearly two dozen, in part because many districts didn't respond or failed to provide sufficient information to be considered for the report card. The organization also gathered information from menus on the school districts' websites and spoke with school officials.
The group's officials said that the average grade is a B (84), up from the national average of 78.7 in 2008.
"I'm extremely delighted for the county," said Klatko. "We've always been a cooking county, and we've always cooked from scratch using whole foods. We've always been on that type of program, so it's really, really nice to be honored in such a way that some large group like this recognizes it."
The physicians committee's officials credited Howard for providing vegetarian options each day, including fresh fruit and low-fat vegetable side dishes such as steamed carrot coins and steamed spinach. It also recognized the system for providing meals with vegetables and fruits from its farm-to-school program.
And it praised the school system's culinary arts program. "We hadn't seen anything like [the culinary arts program] anywhere else," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for the physicians committee.
"In Howard County we saw a solid effort to offer healthful choices to kids," Levin added. "What Howard County did that earned it a pretty good score is that they daily offered a plant-based or vegetarian option."
Levin said that the government provides foods in commodities that make it "very inexpensive" for schools to feed students. Some of the foods are reimbursable, such as milk, which further keeps costs down.
"But the commodity list is very long," added Levin, "so they can opt for beans for a commodity purchase as opposed to chicken nuggets."
"That's why," Levin added, "we like to see how the schools use their power of choice to provide healthier options to kids, while recognizing that if you put a plate of pizza and french fries in front of a 10-year-old kid, and a plate of beans, rice and broccoli in front of a kid, in this cultural climate the kid is more likely to choose the pizza and french fries. So the school also should have some programs in place to educate and incentivize healthier choices."
Montgomery County scored an 86 (B-plus) on the report card.
Klatko said it's not surprising that school districts in the Baltimore-Washington area fared so well.
"It just seems that our population is so well educated; they read the Internet, they read the newspapers, they're up on a lot of things," Klatko said. "You have to stay a few steps ahead of them, and you're reading to make sure you know what's expected. But mine is an ingrown philosophy of how I want it to be."