Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mom Thwarted by Dairy Industry's Chocolate Milk Spin

Guest Post
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.:

Dear Parents,

“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.


  1. I'm a little jarred by what happened at your school. How frustrating!!! Thanks for sharing your story.

    Why is milk the great source, the end all be all for nutrients? Why not fun but educational ways to show students that vegetables, fruit and whole grains are the best choice?

  2. My kid's school does not serve chocolate milk, but I'm feeling your pain this week; when I asked our church nursery supervisor on Sunday to maybe just give the kids water instead of frightening blue kool-aid, she refused to do so unless all the parents agreed that kool-aid should stop. When did horrible sugary food become the default? Are there really parents out there who will be upset if their babies DON'T get kool-aid (or Chocolate milk?) Based on your story, I guess so. We have an uphill fight.

  3. I agree^. Really, so what if milk consumption drops off? GASP!
    Are there not a myraid of other, nutritious, food and beverage choices kids could be consuming?
    Personally, my 9 yr. Old twins drink decaff green tea at breakfast or water
    Stephanie Jenson

  4. Very interesting post... now that I read that, I'm thinking back on how I handled my milk selection for school lunches. Still being in my 20's, it wasn't that long ago...

    That's rather messed up, though, that they rescinded that vote. That month off without chocolate at the start of the year could have made a decent difference and would've been a cool experiement.

    Milk was my primary source of drink from birth to about age 18. My dad would only serve us milk with meals, no soda, and also gave us milk money every day we went to school.

    Thinking back, if I had a selection, I'd always pick chocolate. It's rare that I'd go with plain white. But often, I found that the kids that straggled into the milk line late would be left with the option of only white... there were some sighs, but nothing too out of control.

    Chocolate milks, they were used like capital during lunch time. We had kids (and I was guilty of doing this as well) that would trade certain food or drink items just so they could have a second chocolate milk box.

    A little elementary school economy built on chocolate milk...

  5. I've said it before - but what if we offered the option of EITHER flavored milk OR a reasonable dessert? I think then the kids would get the correct message, that flavored milk is a treat and plain milk is not.

    I am less concerned with the specific foods kids are putting in their mouths at school as I am with the eating habits they learn there. I wish nutrition directors were as well.

  6. This just blows my mind. that the dairy industry has such power is amazing. I like milk, In fact I like a local less processed whole milk. It tastes great.
    Chocolate milk is a treat.

    I know a great many people who proclaim Cow's milk is not for humans. In truth a human can get all of the nutrients that they can get from milk from other sources. The best source of Vit. D is the Sun.
    So get those kids outside for 15 min. everyday to run and play. Feed them some leafy greens and a banana.

  7. Hi Ed,

    As usual, the blog this week is very interesting and thought-provoking. Milk consumption has actually dropped off in the last 30 years, so I guess the dairy industry will try anything. We had a second house in a community near Albany, NY and when we first went there in the mid-70s, there were 30 dairy farms in town. Now, there is one farm left. Farming continues to be a real challenge....

    I really wish they would make a low-sugar chocolate milk. I have a child who has never drunk milk. he was in the 10th percentile for weight for many years due to food avoidance issues related to smell, taste and texture. I try to get him to drink at least one glass a day. He won't eat cheese. He might have yogurt - plain vanilla. Right now, he's hating that all the school chicken has these sauces - he's just like some plain baked chicken....

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Hi, I am on our Catholic school lunch and wellness committee for Stevens Point Area Catholic Schools, in Wisconsin. We eliminated chocolate milk from all our system's school, and have faced a lot of protest. It has been a hugely emotional issue. We are going to try to stay the course: bottom line: we want to convey a sense of urgency for the childhood obesity epidemic which is going to make 1/3 of our kids who are born after 2000 obese, and have many of them on insulin injections in their 20s and 30s. This decision puts some control back in the hands of the parents whose kids are struggling with their weight or who simply don't want their kids on choco milk, because once the kids go to school, there is no control and they will almost all chose choco milk if it is available. So we labor on...