Raising My Hand for School Health (AKA Chocolate Milk in a Land of Wellness)

November 18, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Milk

As Deputy Director of the Healthy Schools Campaign and father of a
3 1/2 year old boy, I am both personally and professionally conflicted
with the stir that has been caused by chocolate milk recently, but mostly I look at this issue and hope we aren't losing focus on the big picture.

Recently the milk industry has begun serving slick ads encouraging the consumption of chocolate milk (“raise your hand for chocolate milk“) and in response, those on the other side of the debate have felt forced to draw a line in the sand saying absolutely no to flavored milk.

So the question is: when it comes to flavored milk, do the health
benefits (vitamins and minerals) outweigh the negatives (added sugar)?
Or is flavored milk an absolutely unhealthful option? The reality is
that it's unclear and has been for years. Even the recent IOM report
on school meals did not distinguish between flavored and regular milk
in their recommendations. So in my mind, flavored milk becomes one of
those “sometimes” foods, which is how I treat it at home.
In other words: it's not perfect, it's not the worst option out there,
and I don't believe it should take attention away from the bigger issue
of ensuring that our schools support wellness in a comprehensive and
meaningful way. 
As a school health advocate, I
want to focus our attention on developing and implementing common-sense
nutrition standards, increasing nutrition education and increasing
funding for better school food. I hope we don't become sidetracked by
efforts to get any single item banned from school menus.

A recent Chicago Tribune story
highlighted the challenges of eliminating flavored milk in a school,
and also highlighted a school district that displayed what I felt was a
supportive and rational decision-making process. According to the
story, a school wellness committee in Barrington, IL decided to remove
flavored milk from the lunch offerings, at which point other parents
raised complaints and concerns. And then:

…three
students came by his [the superintendent's] office over the summer with
some evidence and a request… a trial: The schools would serve
flavored milk on Fridays and figure out how that affected
consumption… and now the schools compare how much milk is tossed out
on white-milk-only days and flavor Fridays… The study will run
through January, when the district will decide the future of flavored
milk.

To me this represents a nearly-ideal response to this controvery
because ultimately, it allowed the voices of the parents and the
students to be heard. The superintendent decided to gather data before
making a decision instead of basing a decision only on input from
either side of the heated debate. And it set up a decision-making plan
that can bring community members together to learn about the issues.

When my son Henry goes off to school in a year or two, I hope his
school doesn't serve chocolate milk in the cafeteria. But more than
that, I hope his school makes wellness a priority throughout the day
and across the building: I hope the school serves wholesome meals,
provides fresh vegetables, limits access to unhealthy treats, provides
nutrition education and offers Henry and his future classmates that
chance to run and play, both in PE and recess. In the context of this
type of healthy environment, the truth is that I'm not overly concerned
by any single less-healthy food option.

And the
reality is that most schools today do not provide this comprehensive
approach to wellness in a health-supporting environment. I hope that we
can focus our energy on that struggle, speaking up for better school
food funding and policies that support physical activity and food
education. 

So I won't be raising my hand for chocolate milk. But I will be
speaking up for policies that put the flavored milk decision in the
context of a healthful school environment for all the students.