By Julia Mcnally
I am a mother of two -- a 7 year-old girl and a 5-year old boy. I do a pretty good job of cooking fresh food at home. When my daughter started kindergarten a few years ago, I let her start eating lunch at school.
I will be honest, I was happy not to have to make her a lunch every day, and she was also excited about having a hot lunch. There were two things I noticed when she started eating school lunches: 1) She became pickier about the foods I served at home (before that time she would eat nearly anything I served) and 2) she began to put on weight.
I became concerned and decided to join the wellness committee in our school district. Working with nutrition services, the committee has been able to make some changes, like offering desserts only once or twice a week instead of every day. But the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, pizzas, and burgers remain.
Earlier this year, I watched Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" on television and he really spoke to me. I went and had lunch with my daughter at her school and I took a good look around. Nearly every child was drinking chocolate milk. I picked up a carton and looked at the nutrition label: 26 grams of sugar, along with high fructose corn syrup, salt, and artificial flavor.
In our household, we have chocolate milk occasionally as a treat when we go out to dinner, and we have hot chocolate to warm our Wisconsin winters. But I wondered how many children were drinking chocolate milk every day, and I wondered why they were even being offered chocolate milk in the first place -- especially at the elementary school level when habits are formed.
I brought it before the wellness committee last spring before summer break. I couldn't convince the nutrition services director to drop chocolate milk completely, but we did vote to try a month without it, right at the beginning of the school year. We hoped that incoming kindergartners wouldn't learn to expect chocolate milk, and perhaps the other returning students would have lost some of their taste for it over the summer.
Our plan was also to hand out information to parents at registration to encourage their children to drink plain white milk. We were hoping that milk consumption wouldn't drop off (or if so, very little) and we could make the change permanent.
I should have heard alarm bells when I went to register my kids and there was no mention of white milk in the Fall. But the Committee had voted on it, and frankly, the weeks before school starts are pretty busy ones, so I didn't follow up with anyone about it.
You know where this is going, right?
Two days before school started, the nutrition services director decided not to remove chocolate milk, citing a "study" from MilkPEP she had learned about at a nutritional conference over the summer.
To add insult to injury, she sent out a two-page flyer from MilkPEP to all the parents in the district, which basically encourages chocolate milk consumption. When I tried to get her to reconsider, she used the statistics promoted by MilkPEP as her "proof" that milk consumption would drop in our district if we only offered White Milk.
I argue that we don't know if milk consumption would have dropped, because we didn't go through with our trial, and now, most likely we never will. Unfortunately the dairy industry's chocolate milk marketing campaign is having its intended effect, at least in my district--so much so, that I am now the bad guy for wanting only white milk!
The bottom line is, by serving chocolate milk, schools are creating an army of children who crave sweetened beverages and won't drink anything else. What kind of legacy is that?
Here is the text of the letter sent to parents by Linda S. Binder, director of nutrition services for schools in Grafton, Wis.:
“The Chocolate Milk Story”
In response to a concern from parents that flavored milk should be removed from schools because of its high sugar content, we are taking the following steps:
Strawberry flavored milk (which has the highest sugar content of the
milk we serve) will no longer be served at Grafton School District.
We will still, however, have chocolate milk available to students during lunch.
The Early Childhood and Kindergarten Staff will only serve white milk as their snack time milk choice.
We will be providing some fun but educational ways, of showing students that white milk is a better milk choice than chocolate.
Parents can also help by talking to their children and suggest they limit the amount of days, or times during the day, they drink chocolate milk… BUT please don’t have them limit milk!
Milk provides 3 of the 5 “nutrients of concern” that children do not get enough of – calcium, potassium and magnesium - as well as other nutrients.
In the meantime, the dairy industry is working on the development of chocolate milk that will be lower in sugar; hopefully that will become available this school year.
The article sent along with this e-mail summarizes studies done at 58 schools. In short, low fat chocolate is the most popular milk choice in schools and kids drink less milk (and therefore get fewer nutrients) if it’s taken away.
Please feel free to contact me with concerns or comments.
Linda S. Binder, R.D.
Director of Nutrition Services
Julia McNally lives in Grafton, Wis.