Despite bad rap, chocolate milk still a favorite in schools

Chocolate and other flavored milk has come under fire from advocates who say it should be removed from school cafeterias. But the beverage has allies among Connecticut officials who cheered when a federal official noted that it was left out of new rules aimed at ensuring students get healthier meals.

“That would be a public health problem if flavored milk was taken out of the schools. Kids won’t gravitate to the white milk,” said Madeleine Diker, who runs the food programs at Cheshire Public Schools that serves about 3,200 students lunch each day.

choc milk

New London Public Schools’ Food Service Director Gail Sharry tries some strawberry milk from a New Britain dairy farm

Whole milk and most trans fats will be banned, and schools will have to reduce the calories and sodium in students’ meals under new rules adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Schools risk losing federal funding if they don’t comply by the start of the next school year.

“We know that people in the United State use too much sodium. Let’s knock it off starting in the schools,” John Magnarelli, the regional director for the USDA. “I hear it all the time that we need to remove flavored milk from the schools. I disagree.”

Although flavored milk got a reprieve from the USDA, school districts in Connecticut and across the country have taken flavored milk out of their cafeterias. The move has been pushed by some parents and nutritionists who say the added sugars are contributing to the nation’s obesity problems.

The initiative was highlighted nationally earlier this year when Jamie Oliver, the host of a popular ABC program that focuses on unhealthy food habits, filled a school bus with sugar to show how much students in the Los Angeles Unified School District consume in one week’s worth of flavored milk. The district soon enacted a ban.

In Connecticut, New Haven is among the districts that have outlawed flavored milk.

“To have this great healthy meal and then to top it off with chocolate didn’t make sense,” said Tim Cipriano, who is in charge of the food service program servicing about 17,000 students in the city’s schools.

But many of his peers at the annual state school nutrition conference in Plantsville Wednesday disagree. They cheered when Magnarelli pointed out in his presentation the new USDA rules that flavored milk could remain on the menu.

“Flavored milk is the dumbest fight we schools should be having,” said Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, who teaches child nutrition at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. With six in 10 children not getting enough calcium each day, he said, schools should be happy when they choose milk at all, no matter how it’s served. “Let’s not pick on the good guy. Milk is the good guy.”

He notes in the schools he studied that banned flavored milk, consumption dropped by an average of 35 percent. Cipriano said New Haven Public Schools has seen a “moderate” decrease in milk consumption since they started the ban last year.

USDA photo

John Magnarelli, the regional director for the USDA: ‘I hear it all the time that we need to remove flavored milk from the schools. I disagree.’

There’s a lot a stake for dairy farmers, as milk sold in schools accounts for 7 percent of all milk sales in the country. Last year, the milk producers started a campaign to defend themselves against these attacks on chocolate milk.

“Chocolate milk is always good to have available. We are making sure it’s low-fat and low sugar,” said Don Patterson, a customer service manager for a New Britain dairy farm.

While relieved flavored milk will remain on the menu, school food officials are not happy with the increased fruit and vegetable requirements in the USDA regulations. Districts will be required to double the amount of fruit and vegetables they offer for those receiving free and reduced meals starting no later than the start of next school year.

“We hear that, and all of us in this room are going, ‘Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.’ That’s a huge added cost for us,” said Lonnie Burt, the food service director of Hartford Public Schools where almost all the students receive free and reduced meals. “If you make me double that amount of fruit then that’s going to double my costs.”

Other school officials agree.

“We understand that’s going to be more costly,” Magnarelli said, noting school lunches will be reimbursed an additional 6 cents per meal to help cover the costs. School breakfasts will not get larger reimbursements.

If schools don’t comply with the new slew of requirements, they could face losing 32 cents per meal in federal money. For districts like Hartford, New Haven and New London, who have high numbers of children receiving free and reduced meals, that would be a significant cut in funding.

“That 6 cents will be a very minor supplement of what the actual costs will be,” said Gail Sharry, the food service director of New London Public Schools.

Teri Dandeneau, who works at the State Department of Education’s food nutrition bureau, said the fear is that these additional requirements could lead to even higher school lunch prices. About one-third of the 200 school meals officials that attended Wednesday’s conference said they had to increase the price they were charging since last year, many of those attributing gearing up for these new requirements as a cause for that increase.

Mike Edgar, a food service manager for Chartwells that services 11 school districts in the state, said these new requirements will add between 15 to 23 cents per meal.