As those who’ve followed “Food Revolution” know, Jamie Oliver has decided to make flavored milk Public Enemy Number One.
In the first episode of this season, J.O. filled a school bus to near-bursting with white sand to demonstrate how much sugar is in the flavored milk offered to Los Angeles USD students each week.* He’s also circulating an online petition to get flavored milk out of American schools, a petition that’s heavily promoted on his Food Revolution Facebook page and Twitter. (Faced with this pressure, and perhaps also to resuscitate LAUSD’s public image — which has been battered quite a bit on “Food Revolution” – the new Los Angeles schools superintendent announced yesterday that he’ll ask the LAUSD board in to consider a flavored milk ban.)
Of course, Jamie Oliver is not alone in wanting flavored milk out of schools. Many other people (whom I respect) also argue for a flavored milk ban – including Chef Ann Cooper (who famously refers to flavored milk as “soda in drag”) and the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. (The recent coverage by the mainstream media of sugar’s alleged toxicity has only added fuel to the fire.) But it’s Jamie Oliver, with his winning personality and broad media reach, who has suddenly made the issue a topic of national conversation.
At times like this, when the populace is out with pitchforks and torches, it feels safer to lay low until the commotion dies down. Moreover, anyone who comes to the defense of flavored milk is often accused of being co-opted (or haplessly brainwashed) by the dairy industry, which obviously has a vested interest in keeping flavored milk in school cafeterias.
But I have some niggling concerns about JO’s War on Flavored Milk and finally decided I was being a wimp by remaining silent. Keep in mind, I’m not pro-flavored milk by any means. I’m just anti-ban, and here’s why:
Lack of Consensus
While everyone agrees that lowering kids’ sugar intake is a good idea in this age of childhood obesity, things get a little trickier when it comes to flavored milk. On one end of the spectrum, there are parents who feel strongly that milk is an important part of a child’s diet and they’re willing to overlook the added sugar if necessary to get their kids to drink it. On the other end of the spectrum, there are parents who feel the added sugar is a terrible thing and insist that kids will drink plain milk if no flavored milk is offered. There are parents in the middle (like me) who allow flavored milk as an occasional treat. And then there are parents who believe that neither flavored milk nor plain milk is a necessary part of a child’s diet and that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by the dairy industry.
Meanwhile, there’s no clear consensus in the medical/nutrition community to settle the debate. Whatever you may think of the scientific validity of their positions, or the degree to which they have, or have not, been influenced by the nefarious dairy lobby (and I offer no opinion on either point), here are some leading organizations that currently support flavored milk in schools: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the National Medical Association, the National Hispanic Medical Association and the School Nutrition Association. In addition, the Institute of Medicine, whose recommendations will form the basis of the new, forthcoming school food regulations, also accepts the presence of flavored milk in schools. (Dentists, apparently, can’t reach a consensus on the issue.)
I mention these organizations not as an endorsement of their views but merely to point out why a well-meaning parent could easily feel conflicted about flavored milk, getting one message from Jamie Oliver and another, diametrically opposed view from a trusted pediatrician or pediatric dietician.
Milk Consumption Drops When Flavored Milk Is Banned
My fellow school food blogger Ed Bruske, aka The Slow Cook, has written many posts in support of a flavored milk ban (which I encourage you to read as a counterpoint to this piece). In one such post, Ed cites a recent Institute of Medicine report which concluded that most Americans are getting sufficient calcium, with the exception of one subset of the population, girls aged 9-18.
One could conclude from that sentence that we don’t have a problem with calcium consumption in America, but here are two questions that came to my mind when I read it:
First, would children currently getting sufficient calcium continue to do so if flavored milk were removed from schools? A recent study which looked at 58 elementary and secondary schools found that on days when only white milk was offered in cafeterias, milk consumption dropped an average of 35 percent. Yes, yes, I know that study was funded by the dairy industry, and maybe it’s all bunk. But on a purely anecdotal basis, I have never heard of any school district that did not see a significant, lasting drop in milk consumption when flavored milk was discontinued. (If any of you have data to the contrary, please do let me know.)
If you don’t believe me, check out this photo taken in Houston schools documenting children’s refusal to drink white milk as part of our universal, in-class breakfast program (in which only white milk is offered.) Each and every day, carton after carton of unopened milk is thrown away (and cannot be donated to food banks under a local city ordinance). And in a meeting yesterday, HISD indicated that — almost one year after the breakfast program was fully rolled out — kids still don’t want the white milk, disproving the notion that children inured to flavored milk will eventually drink plain if they have no choice.
Second, what about those girls aged 9-18 who were found by the IOM study to be getting insufficient calcium? There’s probably no subset of the population for whom calcium consumption is more important, given that women’s long-term bone strength is dependent, in part, upon calcium consumption during these exact years of critical growth. Shouldn’t we be worried about taking away a one of the best dietary sources of calcium from their school meals? And that leads me to my next concern . . .
Reliance on Other Sources of Calcium May Not be Reasonable
I’m not a dietician and don’t even play one on TV. But just looking at the major dietary sources of calcium, I worry about kids who stop drinking all milk after a flavored milk ban, yet still need a recommended 1300 mg of calcium a day. To make naturally sour yogurt palatable to a broad population of children, you have to add quite a bit of sugar. An over-reliance on cheese would most likely exceed existing fat limits for school food. Dark, leafy greens at least when ineptly prepared, as they are by most school cafeterias (see this sad picture of bok choy served in Houston ISD) and sardines or canned salmon with bones are nonstarters.
In his above-cited post, Ed Bruske argues that a fortified cereal like Total can supply necessary calcium that’s lost when milk is no longer consumed at lunch. But what about the millions of American school children who eat lunch at school but not breakfast?
I guess I’m just not confident that kids will get necessary calcium without drinking milk, and whether we like it or not, a lot of them will only drink it when flavored.
But let’s say I’m wrong about everything I’ve said so far – and I certainly might be as I claim no expertise in these areas. Now let’s turn to my last, and most important, concern about JO’s Chocolate Milk War.
Is a Flavored Milk Ban the Best Use of Our Energy Right Now?
I recently met (via email) Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch, a California school food catering company mentioned on TLT last week. Somehow he and I got to chatting about flavored milk, and Justin summed up beautifully my overall feeling about Jamie Oliver’s crusade:
I’ve walked the floor of the CSNA [California School Nutrition Association] and SNA [School Nutrition Association] national show multiple times, and I’m frankly a little bummed that the best Jamie came away with was chocolate milk. What about “Uncrustables”? Or “pancake and sausage sandwiches”? Or “commodity processors”? Processors are in business simply to take your government chicken and grind it, pump it with soy fillers to offset fat, and mold it into a dinosaur. These are kinds of issues are far more problematic than flavored milk in my view. . . . I get that chocolate milk is an easy target – there’s a viable alternative (white milk), there’s a singular enemy (sugar), and there’s a like for like comparison to another villain (soda, when compared strictly on a gram by gram basis).
Seemingly low hanging fruit here, and I get it. I don’t want my daughter drinking chocolate milk, and if so, only sparingly. But on the macro level, instead of addressing what I feel are much larger issues, we’re bringing the fight to something kids love, and quite frankly, parents are split in terms of their position (even those who are adequately armed with all of the facts). In my view, this is a bad play that is only further polarizing parents on sides of the issues instead of unifying.
To Justin’s list of issues on which Jamie Oliver might have focused this year (complete with an online petition and calls to action) I would add:
- the woeful inadequacy of school food funding – ie., the fact that far more than a six cent increase is needed to “revolutionize” school food;
- the legality of incorporating ammonia-treated “pink slime” in ground beef sold to schools;
- the need for Congress to provide funding to upgrade school kitchens around the country, many of which can do little more than deep fry and reheat;
- the lack of access to drinking water in school cafeterias and the degree to which the new requirement to provide water is an unfunded mandate many schools will have trouble meeting;
- the complete junk sold on cafeteria a la carte lines that passes for “healthy” (even under the new IOM standards) like Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos and Rice Krispie Treats.
and on and on . . .
What About Finding a Middle Ground?
It seems to me that there’s enough disagreement among parents and professionals on the flavored milk issue that a middle ground solution is called for. For example, what about flavored milk with significantly less sugar? I recently interviewed School Food FOCUS (post forthcoming), a group that brings together the largest school districts in America to demand better products from food producers. Using their considerable market power, some districts have been able to force dairies to make lower sugar flavored milk, and I’ve been told that my own Houston school district (7th largest in the country) is embarking on a similar effort. Wouldn’t that be an idea worth considering before we ban a beverage that so many people seem to want to keep around?
And finally, there is the issue of parental choice. When it comes to something utterly non-nutritive in schools, like sodas in vending machines or sugary birthday treats in the classroom, I’m not cool with the argument that says,”Just tell your kid not to eat/drink it.” That approach, in my opinion, puts an unfair burden on children for no good purpose. But there’s enough room for debate on the flavored milk issue that in this case, I, for one, am willing to live and let live.
* * *
Given the current anti-flavored milk fervor out there, I’m going to hit the “publish” button on this post and then run for deep cover. I’ll tiptoe back later and read your comments, of which I’m guessing there will be many. And I’ll let you know if the JO camp decides to strip me of my Food Revolution November Blog of the Month honor. (They can’t do that, can they?)
* School food advocate Dana Woldow pointed out in a comment on TLT that the sugar in Jamie’s school bus “represents the sugar available to the 650,000 kids in the LAUSD, a population large enough to fill 7 stadiums (stadia?) the size of the approximately 92,000-seat Rose Bowl. So to get a true picture of the amount of sugar per kid per week, you have to imagine the sugar pile cut into seven parts, then each part divided by the number of people in the Rose Bowl picture. . . .” Whatever you think about the present level of sugar in flavored milk — and I agree it’s too high — definitely click on the Rose Bowl picture to get some perspective on the school bus stunt.
[Ed Update: I didn’t realize that Ed Bruske has another anti-flavored-milk post today (I think we must have published within a few hours of each other!) that could have been written as a direct response to this post. You can check it out here.]
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