Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cutting Off the Flow

Recently the USDA passed new regulations concerning the school food programs, based on the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. While the regulations are not perfect (they still allow pizza to count as a vegetable, for example), their passage is mostly good news for getting healthier lunches at school made with ingredients sourced nearby when possible.  

Reading about the new regulations got me thinking. About milk. About flavored milk specifically. And about the Arlington Schools, where my two kids attend. I love my kids’ schools. The teachers and staff are fantastic, and my kids have thrived. But I’m going to come out and say it: our public schools should not be serving chocolate milk every day. Or strawberry milk. One 8 ounce serving of those chocolate babies has 25 grams of sugar. And the kids who eat breakfast at school can get a double dose every day. 

Massachusetts has passed new nutrition standards that will require schools to phase out most flavored milk anyway by 2013. So why wait? Even though Arlington may have a low rate of obesity among its kids compared to the rest of Massachusetts, 10% of Arlington kids are still overweight. We can do better.

Some critics, namely from the dairy industry, say kids need their calcium and if chocolate milk is the only way to get it, then so be it. But I’m not sure milk is the holy grail of nutrition. In fact for millennia humans consumed animal milk products only in soured form; the idea of drinking non-soured milk has developed only since the mid-1800s and was fueled by the discovery of pasteurization. These new non-soured products with higher levels of lactose highlighted that many humans are in fact lactose intolerant, something the dairy industry glosses over as it tries to sell milk as nature’s perfect food (for a fascinating read on the history of milk consumption check out Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages). The bottom line is that are plenty of alternative edible vehicles for calcium and protein, like veggies, grains, nuts and seeds, and soured milk products like cheese and yogurt.

I don’t think kids should never drink chocolate milk. They just shouldn’t have the opportunity to drink it every day at school. We have become an eating culture where eating in restaurants and 800 calorie beverages have become daily occurrences. The school that ban cupcakes on birthdays but still serves flavored milk every day has it backwards. We need to treat treats as treats, not as daily expectations. Schools can help reinforce that message right now.

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