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Got (Chocolate) Milk? What You Really Need to Know About the Battle in our Schools

We have to eat to survive, but how we eat can determine if we will thrive or not, and schools have a tremendous opportunity to positively influence the lives and health of our children.
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Last week, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab released new data which showed that when you ban chocolate milk in school cafeterias, overall milk consumption falls and there is an increase in waste. Despite the fact that the study, which received wide-spread publicity, has questionable methodology, which School Bites effectively summarized, it has divided many of us into pro- and anti-Chocolate Milk Activist camps.

On the one hand, pro-chocolate milk activists, like Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times, argue that, among other things, milk is a vital part of a growing child's diet, and if it takes some chocolate to make it palatable, so be it. At least we can rest assured that our children are drinking the milk. Others argue that restricting food makes our kids want it even more. This common refrain in the pro-sugary food movement reasons that by limiting or restricting something desirable, our kids will over-indulge whenever said food becomes available. Others argue that, from a nutritional standpoint, depending on what kind of chocolate milk you buy, it may only have 1.5 teaspoons of added sugar plus the usual benefits of milk, which include protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin D and phosphorous, which is far better than many of the empty calorie beverages currently available. (It should be noted though, as The Lunch Tray outlines, "Horizon has almost 6 teaspoons of sugar -- four times as much! -- per serving.")

Anti-chocolate milk activists, however, argue that the extra sugar is part of the reason we have such high obesity rates among children. Far from an occasional treat, chocolate milk is being offered once or twice a day in many schools. Recent data confirms that "today, by the time the average child in a developed country turns 8 years old, they've had more sugar in their lives than the average person did in their entire lifetime just one century ago." Every few weeks, new research seems to come out demonstrating that sugar is the cause of so many of our country's health problems.

This really isn't about chocolate. Or milk. Or chocolate milk. If we follow the "restriction equals indulgence later" argument, are we saying we should replace the broccoli with gummy bears in the school cafeteria to make sure our kids can always have candy so they never feel restricted? Or, in the interest of good nutrition, should we dip the broccoli in melted chocolate, and then feel satisfied that our kids are eating a dark, leafy vegetable? Government guidelines on what schools can (and can't) serve clearly demonstrate that most of us agree there should be some restrictions on what our kids can eat at school.

This is about schools and the role our schools play in educating and exposing our children to food. Of course what you do at home is your business; if you want to pump your kid full of chocolate milk -- the lower sugar or higher sugar kind -- go for it. Whether you choose to restrict, allow free access or find some comfortable place in between, that's your decision to make in your home. Similarly, if you think it's OK to have your kid in front of the TV every waking non-school moment, go for it. But that's in your house. In our schools, we expect them to create and support an environment that is truly in the best interest of our children. Adding sugar to milk, pizza sauce and "power" drinks doesn't actually give our children the best chance for success.

We have to eat to survive, but how we eat can determine if we will thrive or not, and schools have a tremendous opportunity to positively influence the lives and health of our children. Learning how to take care of our body and successfully nourish it is critical to our personal, emotional, physical and professional success in life. And, since so much of the eating in our early years actually takes place in our schools, they are uniquely positioned to expose our children to a variety of healthy options. Let's stop fighting about chocolate milk and instead talk about how we can support school efforts to get children excited about eating better food.

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