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Got (non-flavored) milk?

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Esther Cepeda
June 12, 2011
— Chocolate milk is my sworn enemy. French toast sticks drowning in fake maple syrup and sugary cereals are, too. But let's start with the milk.

White milk, despite being roundly disliked in my household, has always been the drink my children have gotten with their meals. It's never smooth sailing, but plain milk is the healthiest choice and since I get to plan the meals at home, that's that.


A well-meaning baby sitter once decided to make the dreaded milk "fun" for my two sons by pouring sweetened chocolate flavoring into it. A couple of squeezes later and voila! I had a full-scale "plain" milk revolt on my hands.


Explanations about the high amount of extra sugar in chocolate versus white milk didn't go down well back home, but the kids resigned themselves to the regular routine where a treat such as chocolate milk was just that: a rare treat.


Then they entered first grade where lunch came with the choice of plain white or strawberry- or chocolate-flavored milk. You know, I know, and everyone who was ever a kid knows which kind of milk gets chugged at lunch every day -- dairy industry groups estimate that 71 percent of the milk served in schools is flavored.


But is a small carton of 1 percent chocolate or strawberry milk really so bad?


It certainly doesn't have to be, but look at a recent Wednesday menu at my neighborhood school where 81 percent of the school's students are minorities and 70 percent are classified as low-income and eligible to receive free or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.


The main choice was a "cheese dog on a bun" with peas, a fresh orange and the milk selection. Not so bad, if you overlook the dubious nutritional value of the "cheese dog" and you assume that the peas and orange weren't thrown away. In this context, the extra 70 sugar-laden calories in the chocolate milk aren't going to harm anyone.


Let's say a student opted for the alternate "Fun Lunch" consisting of reduced-sugar Frosted Flakes cereal, string cheese, a packet of graham crackers, an orange, and milk of choice. That's not lunch, that's a lot of dessert. And I have it on good authority that the chocolate milk flowed into the Frosted Flakes that day, as it often does into other sugary cereals that pass for lunch at my neighborhood school and probably at yours, too. Don't take my word for it, check your local school's website for its menus and you might be shocked at what lunchtime brings.


And though it is a documented fact that almost 90 percent of the children attending my neighborhood school are overweight or obese, only six of the 69 lunches in May were considered "meal combinations that meet precise nutrition standards that endorse healthy eating guidelines for students."


My point is that if every student ate an otherwise nutritious lunch every day, flavored milk would be no big deal, but that's a fairy tale. It makes absolutely no sense for public schools to instill in children the bad habit of choosing chocolate or strawberry milk to accompany nutritionally awful, though popular, menu staples such as mashed potatoes, nachos or those French toast sticks in syrup.


Thankfully, during these summer months, some forward-thinking administrators across the country are doing their part to help stop our national child-obesity crisis by saying "no" to flavored milk in school cafeterias.


John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, recently announced he will recommend that the school board eliminate chocolate and strawberry milk in its next dairy contract. L.A. would join several other districts in California and schools in Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., which have decided to stop offering flavored milk in at least some meals.


Deasy is making a smart bet that his students -- about one in three of them are overweight or obese -- won't cease drinking milk altogether, as critics of plain milk-only menus fear. I can only hope he prevails and other school districts will consider choosing no-extra-added-sugar milk for their students as one tiny way to make meals healthier.


To a large degree, kids take their cues from the adults in their lives and usually act based on those adults' expectations. We should think of school administrators the same way and let them know that parents expect students to be offered the most nutritious food possible.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.



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