Soft drinks were banned in Los Angeles schools in 2004. But if you think that means kids are protected from too much sugar at school, think again. Children are regularly able to select a school breakfast that contains more added sugar than a can of soda. A popular breakfast offering of Frosted Flakes doused in chocolate milk with a side of coffee cake and a carton of orange juice contains 51 grams of added sugar (or 79 grams of total sugar counting those that occur naturally in the milk and the juice). A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar.
With about 650,000 student meals served a day, the Los Angeles Unified School District operates the largest school breakfast program in the nation and the second-largest school lunch program. And that isn't necessarily a good thing. A recent study by the University of Michigan of more than 1,000 sixth-graders found that those who ate school-provided lunches were 29% more likely to be obese than those who brought lunches from home.
The foods that schools serve need to be rethought. Take that 51 grams of added sugar in the breakfast described above: It exceeds the daily sugar limit recommended by the World Health Organization, which is 10% of total calories, or 50 grams a day for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Appropriate nutrition is of particular importance in L.A. Unified, where 72% of the students are Latino, an ethnic group at high risk for both obesity and Type 2 diabetes. At the USC Childhood Obesity Research Center, we have recently shown that a high-sugar diet is a major factor leading to overweight and Type 2 diabetes risk factors in Los Angeles-area Latino children.
Despite these health risks, neither federal nor district standards limit the overall sugar content of school meals. Even the newly proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture school food guidelines, which are open for public comment until April 13, don't include specific limits on sugar. Rather, they state that though added sugars should be limited, they may be included as long as the menus meet caloric guidelines.
L.A. Unified's wellness policy does include a section on added sugar. It states, for example, that cereals may not contain more than 7 grams of added sugar per ounce, but this cutoff is high enough that Frosted Flakes and Frosted Mini Wheats are allowed. Moreover, without an overall sugar cap for a meal, it's possible for children to select a loaded combination of sweet items.
Menus should be designed so that no matter what choice a student makes, the total sugar content is low. As it stands, the sweetened cereal, the chocolate milk and juice or fruit are available every day. In addition, about three days a week, the accompaniment to these staples is also something sweet, such as coffee cake or a waffle.
A few straightforward changes to the menus would lead to considerable reductions in sugar intake. Removing the chocolate milk from breakfast and lunch could mean a reduction of 4 teaspoons per day per child, which adds up to nearly a gallon of sugar per child over the course of the school year.
However, politics related to federal funding make such seemingly simple changes more difficult. If the district took away chocolate milk and kids decided not to drink the plain milk, it could lead to reduced funding from the USDA. For the district to receive federal reimbursement for meals, students may not decline more than one item at breakfast or more than two items at lunch. Though technically students may skip the milk altogether and the district would still be reimbursed, chocolate milk is one of the most popular items and helps to ensure student participation — and hence funding.
When discussing the potential decline in participation that might be associated with removing chocolate milk, food service executives often cite a recent study sponsored by the Milk Processor Education Program, which found that when flavored milk is not available, elementary school milk consumption drops by 35%. These results were disseminated to food service directors across the country via the School Nutrition Assn., which is associated with the National Dairy Council.
Despite industry pressure, district food service division administrators are willing to consider offering only plain milk and reducing added sugars in general in the menus. However, they are not confident that district parents will understand or support such efforts, which makes the district hesitant to take the risk.
Now is a crucial time for parents and other community members to voice their opinions and to support the district in reducing the sugar content of meals. The food services division is in the process of revising its menus and developing a new nutrition wellness policy. Though the school board does not review the specific menus, it does vote on the policies that govern them.
The board expects to receive a draft of the new wellness policy in the next month and to vote on it in July. Meanwhile, the food services staff has nearly finalized new menus, which will be tested in the coming months and implemented in the fall.
We recommend that the district embrace the recommendation of WHO and adopt a new policy to regulate the overall added sugar content of student meals to no more than 10% of total calories. Adopting this policy would be a step toward preventing chronic disease in Los Angeles' youth.
Emily Ventura is a research fellow at USC's Childhood Obesity Research Center and social action chairwoman of Slow Food Los Angeles. Michael Goran is a professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics at USC and director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center.