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Removing School Milk May Do More Harm Than Good

school milk

The debate over school milk forges on, especially now as school is upon us.

The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a vegetarian non-profit group dedicated to bettering health through nutrition, wants the government to get rid of dairy as a required food on the school lunch menu. 

While I agree that some children can live well and thrive without dairy, I don’t agree with sweeping it off the lunch line, flavored or not.

Milk is Not Responsible for Childhood Obesity

Truth be told, there’s a long list of reasons for America’s child obesity epidemic, many of which have nothing to do with food. Exercise, parenting, economics, genetic predisposition and yes, the food environment – these all influence a child’s tendency towards obesity, or not.

Some believe that the mere presence of flavored or chocolate milk in the lunchroom is temptation beyond all reason, causing unregulated consumption. This rationale rings like a Laura Numeroff children’s book:

“If you give a pig a pancake, she’ll want some syrup with it…”

If you give a child chocolate milk in school, she’ll want a gallon when she gets home…and all the other sweets in the house.

Fear mongering works, especially when it relates to food and childhood obesity.  The worst-case scenario can move mountains (and folks) to eliminate “bad foods,” in the name of health.

Flavored Milk isn’t the Devil

If you look at the nutrient intake data of children, you’ll find that sugar intake is high—too high.

But it’s not coming from chocolate or flavored milk.

The top contributors of sugar intake for children aged 2-18 years, according a 2010 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics were: soda (32%), fruit drinks (15%), grain desserts (11%), dairy desserts (8%), and candy (7%).

In addition, the top 5 contributors to calorie intake for children (2-18 years) were: grain desserts, pizza, soda, yeast breads and chicken.

Chocolate milk doesn’t make either list.

If you really want to have an impact on children’s sugar consumption in schools, you’ll need to nix the soda machines containing soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and juices, and take a look at the dessert menu.

Getting Calcium from Other Foods

Taking milk off the menu may leave a nutrition gap for many children.

Here’s what a child would need to eat (at school or at home) to match the calcium contributions from an 8-ounce glass of milk (~300 mg calcium):

  • 1 cup fortified soy milk
  • 1 ½ cup calcium-fortified uncooked tofu
  • 1 cup fortified orange juice
  • 1 ½ cup collard greens
  • 1 ½ cups turnip greens
  • 1 cup frozen spinach
  • 3 cups broccoli
  • 1 ¼ cup soybeans
  • 3 cup pinto beans
  • 4 cups chick peas (garbanzo beans)
  • 5 ounces (~120) almonds
  • 3-4 Tbsp. sesame seeds
  • 5 ounces canned sardines (with bones)
  • 2 Tbsp. blackstrap molasses
  • 6 fresh oranges

Children aged 9-18 years need 1300 mg calcium per day. Multiply the above list by 4 and you’re in the ballpark.

I cover calcium foods and the different ways kids can get them in The Calcium Handbook.

What About Vitamin D?

Vitamin D requirements of children are another issue.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) raised the vitamin D requirements for school-age kids and teens to 600 IU per day.

Without milk, which provides ~100 IU per cup, schools and/or parents will need to serve up more fortified orange juice, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, and fortified non-dairy milks to fill the already gaping vitamin D hole for children.

Of course, getting kids to like and eat these alternative foods regularly so they meet their needs for calcium and vitamin D is the real challenge.

When it comes to sweeping nutrition recommendations for children, execution often trumps idealism.

School Milk Solutions that Really Work

The biggest problem of all is distraction. Hopping on the “Milk is Bad” bandwagon and removing milk from schools removes a safety net for many children, and may cause unintended consequences in the long run.

Our efforts are better aimed at solutions that really work.

How we better the nutrition environment in schools?

  • Scale back offerings of flavored milk: Offer flavored milk one or two days each week; on the other three days, provide unflavored low-fat, fat-free milk or non-dairy fortified substitutes.
  • Address the real sugar problem: the availability of sodas, sports drinks, juices and candy in schools. New research shows that states with the toughest laws on competitive food sales (vending machines and fundraising) had trimmer and healthier kids.
  • Get physical education back in the school curriculum, every day.
  • Teach cooking, home economics, and parenting classes. Arm the next generation with tools and know-how to feed their children well.
  • Trim up desserts and offer them once or twice a week.

Children need to learn how to navigate the food environment—one that contains chocolate milk, candy, desserts and fried foods. This isn’t easy today. But controlling less than healthy foods is a short-term tactic, and may do little to prepare children for the long-term reality of making good choices for a lifetime of health.

What do you think about chocolate milk in schools?

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  1. YES! I am grateful for any and all discussion about improving school food! I appreciate your expertise and I very much enjoy your posts. I disagree with your “Calcium needs” point in your blog however. The calcium that’s consumed in dairy products is extremely acidic for the body and over time requires calcium to be drawn away from developing bones in order to neutralize this acid. The highest osteoporosis rates are in those nations that consume the highest amount of dairy (I’ll look for the source/chart). That said, although chocolate and strawberry milks are clearly not the only foods making children obese, that amount of sugar added to milk is not not helping their bones or their immune systems to function effectively. Sugary drinks of any kind should not be sold in schools and certainly should not be marketed as health foods. Thank you for your consideration. Keep up the great work.