By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
My first article for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution blog appears today, a condensed version of a report I published here last week detailing the dairy industry's efforts to create a popular mythology around the notion that kids must have flavored milk available to them in school or else face the possibility of crippling rickets and osteoporosis.
Parents, pediatricians, food service directors--many have fallen under the dairy industry's spell. But a closer look shows that the real reason Big Dairy is campaigning to keep chocolate milk on school lunch trays isn't nutrition, it's the huge losses in sales dairy has suffered in recent decades as Americans abandoned milk as a preferred beverage in favor of cheap, sugary soft drinks.
Dairy organizations such as the National Dairy Council and the Milk Processors Education Program (MilkPEP), a promotional tool mandated by Congress, have very cleverly paid for "research" portraying chocolate milk as the healthy alternative to Coke. Papers written by nutritionists working for Big Dairy get repackaged by professional groups such as the American Heart Assocation and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dairy interests even buy their way into groups such as the School Nutrition Association, where they can make their case unfiltered to the nation's school food service directors.
The result is a kind of public relations echo chamber that puts a gloss of scientific authority on the industry's scare tactics.
With so many resources at their disposal, dairy interests would appear to be winning the battle over chocolate milk. I think their arguments need to be addressed point by point. But I could be wrong. It could be that the shear force of personality of charismatic chocolate milk foes as Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper will win this argument. Witness the decision by officials in Los Angeles to discontinue flavored milk in the nation's second-largest school district--or at least bring the issue to the L.A. school board.
This is a fight worth having now. It is so much easier to remove junk foods from schools than to get children to actually eat the kinds of healthier foods advocates envision. Sugar by far is the most dangerous additive kids face in their daily lives. And yet the USDA has never regulated it in school meals. Even the agency's proposed new guidelines, which call for more vegetables and whole grains, fewer French fries and less salt, are silent on all the sugar used to entice children to eat certain products.
Chocolate milk is the poster child for what's wrong with the way we feed kids today. It's becomes a real flashpoint in the discussion over how best to proceed with the school food revolution, and that only works to the dairy industry's advantage. The sooner we get rid of flavored milk, the quicker we can get on with the business of making real progress in improving the food 32 million kids eat in school every day.