D.C. Said No To Chocolate Milk. Why Not NYC?

Earlier this summer District of Columbia school officials decided to ban chocolate milk from their schools. Proponents of flavored milk argue it’s the only way to get students to drink milk, which provides the calcium, protein and vitamin D that children need. But as Colorado school chef Ann Cooper has pointed out, “Saying we need to add sugar and flavoring to milk to get kids to drink it is like saying we need to feed kids apple pie if they don’t like apples.”

NYC Green Schools has proposed that New York City schools also get rid of chocolate milk as the daily consumption of sweetened drinks has no place in a child’s diet. Here’s the truth about the chocolate milk served daily to New York City’s schoolchildren: It contains 22 grams of sugar, which is more sugar than half a can of coke, and it is sweetened with high-fructose corn-syrup, which is listed as the second ingredient.

With 40 percent of city children either overweight or obese, why does the Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood still insist on chocolate milk? The question is especially vexing because the city decided recently to eliminate sugary drinks from school vending machines, citing irrefutable evidence linking the increased consumption of sugary drinks with the rising rates of childhood obesity.

One SchoolFood official told us that the SchoolFood office is “in the business of food” and that chocolate milk sells. We can only assume this is the same rationale of the dairy industry for continuing to produce chocolate milk. Milk sold in schools makes up 7 percent of all milk sales in the country, and flavored milk constitutes 71 percent of the milk served in our nation’s schools. Neither the city nor the industry wants to risk losing “business” by serving only plain white milk, even though this is clearly the healthier option for our children.

The high-fructose corn syrup in the chocolate milk also poses a health risk to students.  The Washington Post reported last year that new studies had found that “almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where HFCS is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient.” In a prepared statement, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s David Wallinga, a co-author of both studies, said, “Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Given how much high fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered.”

In The Nutrition Deficit Disorder Book, renowned pediatrician William Sears explains that because high-fructose corn syrup does not occur in nature, the body might not know how to process it. Some researchers have expressed concern that the extra fructose in HFCS might be metabolized in the liver, causing damage there. Because the research is mixed, Dr. Sears, like many doctors, advises erring on the side of caution and eliminating high-fructose corn syrup from children’s diets.

As parents, we consider chocolate milk a treat, not a beverage our children should be drinking every day. We also believe that if only plain white milk and water were served in school, children would drink one or the other with their lunch. The daily consumption of sweetened drinks, whether in the form of soda or flavored milk, is harmful to our children’s health. It’s time for the city’s Office of SchoolFood to put our children’s health before “business.” No more excuses. If the District of Columbia can do it, so can New York.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.