Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wake Up, Parents! Or Let Kids Run the Cafeteria

No question: kids like chocolate better

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Suddenly a debate over chocolate milk in school is heating up in the pages of The Washington Post. Or should I say our hometown paper has finally noticed there's a food revolution going on in D.C. school cafeterias now that a first-grader has polled his fellow students and found--shock!--they are not drinking as much milk as some people think they ought to since chocolate and strawberry milk were taken off the menu a year ago.

Post columnist Mike DeBonis sounds downright sympathetic to the plight of these elementary schoolers in affluent Chevy Chase, 58 percent of whom (according to a 7-year-old's poll of about 100 school mates) are not drinking milk. But here's the good news: Apparently, 42 percent of the kids are drinking milk, and that's a lot more than are eating the green beans.

Notice, this dispute centers on something kids love--sugary milk. Nobody is conducting any surveys to see how many kids are shunning the vegetables or whole grains the USDA says kids need more of to avoid becoming obese. Having spent the last year and a half monitoring what kids eat in my daughter's elementary school here in the District, I'm here to deliver some bad news: obscene quantities of vegetables and whole grains are being thrown in the trash every day. In fact, I recently visited an elementary school cafeteria on Capitol Hill on a day when green beans were on the menu. I did not see a single child in the lunch room eating them. But they were all eating the hamburger. (Quite a few were drinking plain milk.)

There is no real secret to all of this. If we allowed kids to write the school menu, it would follow approximately these lines: Chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, pizza, hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, french fries, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, chocolate milk. Those are all things kids love.

Now, what are the adults serving instead? Bone-in chicken, whole grain buns, green beans, whole grain pasta, sauteed squash, roasted sweet potatoes, Caesar salad, bone-in chicken, plain milk. Which would you choose as the healthier menu? Would it surprise you to learn that the kids don't eat it? Why do you think that is? But note, also, there are no adults in the cafeteria talking to the kids about the food. Nobody is marketing the new menu to the children who are supposed to eat it. In other words, the adults really aren't following through to make this food revolution a success.

The real issue is not the sugar in chocolate milk. We already know kids love sugar. Look at the article I posted yesterday on the sodas and other sugary foods elementary school children bring to school from home. The problem is what chocolate milk stands for. More than any other item on the school menu, chocolate milk embodies our failure to pay attention to the way kids are eating, our surrender to a toxic food culture that embraces industrially processed convenience foods because they are easy shortcuts.

We teach children to expect sugar in their food, then we're surprised we have an obesity epidemic?

Yes, chocolate milk pretty much sums up our failure as adults to engage children in the more difficult act of eating thoughtfully, our willingness too often to just let kids eat what they want. Getting children to eat more green beans and less candy is hard work. But nobody said it would be easy.

It's high time we had this discussion. Hooray for first-graders researching the food question. But that doesn't mean it's time to bring back chocolate milk. It means parents (and maybe the Washington Post, too) need to pay more attention. If we want kids to drink more milk--and not everyone thinks that's necessary--then let's get kids to like plain milk.

Heck, while we're at it, we could pony up some more money for electric milk dispensers in the schools--cool machines like the ones I've seen in use in Berkeley and Boulder and other progressive school districts--so kids can help themselves to as much cold, delicious, organic plain milk as they like.

There you go, Council Chairman Brown. Why not do a little research into how we might fund milk dispensers in D.C. schools so kids don't have to drink the stuff in those cheap little cartons. I'm sure they would love pouring their own milk. And maybe if you offered kids really good plain milk, they would drink more of it. But that's not going to happen as long as chocolate milk is an option.

Yes, getting kids to eat more healthfully means getting more involved--with our time and with our wallets. But as my wife likes to say, this is a process, not an event. This revolution is just beginning, and there's lots more work ahead. Think about that before you try to undo the progress that's already been made.


  1. So frustrating. Can't they see that it may be slow to change their eating habits, but it's worth their health...and to save their teeth from hours in the dentist office!

  2. Organic milk? Wow ... why not just throw the exra $0.25 it costs down the drain (along with all those green and orange vegetables, whole grain buns, and fresh fish filets)?

    I don't see where you mentioned that Boulder is now so far in the red that they are BEGGING parents to have their kids eat school lunch. They went from a profitable school food operation that was self-funded to one that now has to take money from the school General Fund to say solvent. Great -- I'm sure teachers and parents are thrilled that instead of buying books, suppllies, computers, etc they now have organic milk.

    Milk dispensers? How are the cafeteria ladies going to ensure that each child is taking 8oz of milk -- the requirement of the serving size? If they don't have 8oz and they only have two other items on their tray, then because of offer versus serve they will be FORCED to take another item that they don't want and throw it in the trash.

    Maybe DC can find donors to pony up the $1 million+ in donations Boulder parents gave to pay for all the equipment and salary of Chef Ann?

    Ed, you've seen how the kids react to things they don't want. Forcing more expensive things down their throats isn't going to make them change their habits.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.

    I love that you are advocating nutrition education and parent/adult role modeling ... I don't love that you think throwing more money in the form of expensive equipment and food/milk products that the kids hate and won't eat will work.

  3. So, on the note of making white milk look "cool" in machines...In my experience, coolness is a huge factor. At DC's "Strawberry and Salad Green" event, kids munched down fruit and vegetable roughage. Still, many students did not want the crunchy green stuff (aka lettuce). This was part due to the gross fat-free salad dressing, but also, these students had NEVER before eaten it. And, not to go unnoticed was the hierarchical, peer-pressured student lunch atmosphere. As an educator for the event, I finally got one of the "cool" kids eating a bite of the greens, only to see all the kids started making an effort...Though childhood obesity is entangled in many structures (look at the diagram here:, I believe school lunch is one of many crucial venues to change. Cheers to those attentive to altering old lunchroom antics. In due time, I can only hope for the healthy lunch to become the coolest! Fight hard, fight strong.

  4. I don't normally respond to anonymous comments, but these merit a retort.

    It's not at all unusual for school food sevice operations to run in the red. The one here in D.C. loses several million dollars a year, meaning simply that the city, through its tax dollars, is subsidizing the food program. I have no problem with that, considering the quality of food and the attention from school officials the program is now getting.

    Likewise, Boulder is getting every pennies worth of any shortfall Ann Cooper is running there. I spent a week in the cafeterias and kitchens there, and the food is terrific. Likewise, the organic milk that comes out of the electric dispensers is fabulous--leagues beyond the junk kids get in those cartons. Having kids pour their own is not a new concept.

    Local jurisdictions should get used to the idea of ponying up more cash for school meals. Impending meal guidelines will cost more money, and the USDA has already said its the state and local governments that will have to pay. If you've been following the budget debates at all in Washington, it's clear that waiting for Uncle Sam to dole out lots more money for school food is not a winning strategy.

  5. I grew up in a large family. My father owned a grocery store. We had our own milk dispenser which dispensed the best milk I have ever had. Cold and frothy deliciousness. Thinking that 1st graders should set policy on milk is ridiculous. In our school district, food is horrible and we get to start school at 7:15 a.m. because it 'works for the city bus schedule'. Everyone has complained, even the 1st grade students! Lunch for the little kids starts at 10:50!

  6. Ed -- the cities, states, and school districts are broke already. You can't get blood from a turnip. And they are NOT going to give me any money ...

    I get your point, but I also see anon's point.

    I run a large urban school district that is thankfully in the black. I have been told that my department will be outsourced so fast my head would spin if I ever touch any money in the district's budget.

    I'd love to do milk dispensers and organic foods, but it is just not in the budget.

  7. Naturally, each district desides where their priorities are.

  8. About deciding on our priorities: In Wisconsin corporate taxes are cut. Teachers and public service workers take home pay is cut (as much as $500/month). Our legislature supported an increase in spending on transportation, though not on rail. Thanks to our legislature, we cannot raise additional money for schools in property taxes. As a nation, we are spending billions on wars. These are not my priorities. It is hard to believe that in this country we have become so mean spirited that we cannot provide real food for student lunches. Seems like its all about corporate money for schools.