Ivan Ballesteros, a student at Marina Del Rey Middle School, drinks chocolate… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
By all means, let's contribute to the health of children by reducing the amount of sugar they consume. Sugar provides little nutrition and no fiber, just loads of empty calories. Increasingly, it is implicated in the nation's higher obesity and diabetes rates. The sugar we drink seems to be particularly troublesome; various studies have found that sugar in liquid form doesn't make people feel satiated, so they consume yet more calories.
The Los Angeles Unified School District's new ban on chocolate milk and other flavored, sweetened milks is one way to reduce such sugar consumption. But society's ongoing efforts to police dietary habits continually run into odd contradictions, and this is no exception.
The district offers orange juice at breakfast, a drink with close to the same amount of sugar as nonfat chocolate milk — and more than a standard soft drink. Meanwhile, the milk has four times as much protein as the juice. So why was flavored milk targeted and not orange juice? It's more about how people perceive certain foods than the reality. Let's face it, in the battle against the bulge, "chocolate" and "sweetened" are fightin' words.
It remains to be seen what effect the new ban will have on the nutrition of the 650,000 children who eat a school lunch each day, most of whom qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. More than half of those students also are served a school breakfast. One concern raised by critics is that some children might boycott the food line altogether; the dairy industry produced a study showing that consumption of school lunches falls by about a third when such bans are introduced. But we don't find that a valid reason to offer sweetened milk; hungry children shouldn't be bribed by sweets to eat something. Of more worry are the arcane federal rules that reduce funding for subsidized lunches if children refuse one or more items offered to them. If the idea behind the program is to feed needy children, then schools should receive funding for any nutritious food the students eat.
It's a tremendous job to feed so many children well, and L.A. Unified deserves praise for its concerted efforts to introduce more produce and whole grains into its meals. The district has been a leader in this regard. But when it comes to the weighty topic of chocolate milk, the school district should consider the overall menu it provides. Flavored milk might be an easy target, but what matters isn't one "evil" product or another; it's the balance of reducing empty calories while increasing nutrition.