Does milk still have a place on school menus? The question is provoking debate locally and nationally. And at issue is not just chocolate milk, but plain milk as well.
This week, a Decatur schools committee recommended banning chocolate milk in k-3 and phasing it out for grades 4 and up. The school board did not act on the recommendation but plans to consider further.
In coming months, Decatur school officials will weigh the cost of substituting healthier options; but will children eat them?
Clare Schexnyder, who was among the parents empaneled by the superintendent, said it’s a public health issue. Medical experts have been sounding the alarm about obesity and diabetes.
“There is just no reason to be giving them sugar to start the day,” Schexnyder said.
Some, including Diego Wren, think the proposals go too far. The 7th grader at Decatur’s Renfroe Middle School had just downed a carton of TruMoo chocolate milk in the cafeteria Thursday.
“The other milk is kind of tasteless,” he said. As for the other proposals, such as baking Tater Tots instead of drowning them in sizzling oil, well, his face bunched up in disbelief: “That would be nasty.”
Some grownups, especially those who make their living thinking of ways to get sufficient nutrition into students, fear there are taste lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Nudged along by federal mandates, though, they increasingly think fried foods are on the wrong side of the line.
U.S. Department of Agriculture school meal standards — that took effect in July — set strict calorie limits. Schools must serve more fruits and vegetables and must offer legumes weekly. They must cut all added trans fats and serve only 1 percent, or nonfat, milk. They also must serve “whole grain rich” breads and pastas.
Schools in Fairfax County, Va., banned chocolate milk in 2010 but reversed that decision a year later because of an outcry from parents, students, nutritionists and the dairy folks.
Most accused the districts of acting rashly, robbing students of a tasty drink and the vitamins and minerals that fuel bone and muscle growth. “We got 10 to 20 e-mails a day,” said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax. “It was a lot of pressure.”
This month — and partly because of that pressure — Fairfax officials announced that they would reintroduce chocolate milk in school cafeterias. The newer, low-fat version includes sucrose, which is made from sugar cane or beets, instead of high-fructose corn syrup, which some critics say is more heavily processed and, as a result, less healthy.
Such reformulations have satisfied some of chocolate milk’s critics. But most scientists and nutritionists, including those employed by local school districts, say that changing sweeteners makes little dietary difference if the total calorie content stays the same.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a physician group based out of D.C., petitioned the federal government in July to remove milk as a required food from the school lunch program. The nonprofit group called milk an “ineffective placebo” and cited research that milk does not improve bone health and does not prevent bone fractures and injury in children and adults.
According to a statement:
“The promotion of milk ingestion in children is, in effect, the promotion of an ineffective placebo,” the petition states. It adds that other products, including calcium-enriched soymilk and rice milk, contain calcium but, unlike dairy milk, are low in sodium and free of animal protein that can cause calcium to be excreted from the body
The petition, filed July 19, asks the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue a report to Congress recommending an amendment to the National School Lunch Act. The amendment would exclude dairy milk as a required component of school lunches. Milk, the petition argues, does not improve bone health or reduce the risk of osteoporosis and can actually create other health risks, especially later in life.
“Milk doesn’t make children grow taller and stronger, but it can make them heavier,” says PCRM nutrition education director Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. “We are asking Congress and the USDA to put children’s interests above the interests of the dairy industry. Focusing on milk as the single most important source of calcium in children’s diets distracts schools and parents from foods that can actually build bones, like beans and leafy greens.”
Among the other 10 recommendations by Decatur’s Ultimate Menu Committee: Eliminate processed baked products, such as muffins, pancakes, waffles and french toast, and replace with healthier versions. Ditto for chips, chicken nuggets, shrimp poppers and Tater Tots. The committee also advised replacing processed cheese with real cheese and ending high sugar desserts.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog