Like many foods—real butter, anyone?—chocolate milk’s fortunes have risen and fallen over time.
Citing concerns over childhood obesity, some school districts—from the District of Columbia in 2010 to Tempe, Ariz. just this school year—have taken the often controversial step to ban chocolate and other flavored milk from their schools.
But some districts are reintroducing chocolate milk back into their cafeterias.
The New Haven school board in Connecticut voted at the end of November to reverse the district’s 2011 ban on chocolate milk. At the beginning of this school year, the Mount Vernon School District in Washington state put chocolate milk back on the menu five days a week after 12 years of only offering it on Fridays. The Los Angeles Unified School district opted to pull back its prohibition in 2016.
One big concern is that when kids pass on milk, they’re also passing on an important source of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D and calcium.
The other issue, cited by the New Haven, Mount Vernon, and Los Angeles districts, is food waste. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, schools there were tossing out an “obscene” amount of food, much of it plain milk.
The New Haven school district has not completely reversed its ban. The district is allowing chocolate milk back into high school lunch periods only twice a week as part of a six-month pilot, according to the New Haven Independent. The school board’s non-voting student representative backed the measure, while the board’s secretary—who is also a pediatrician—voted to maintain the ban.
This tug-o-war over chocolate milk isn’t confined to district-level politics, it’s been happening at the federal level, too. In 2012, the Obama administration rolled out stricter requirements for federally-subsidized school meals, including a rule that all flavored milk had to be fat free.
That rule was reversed by the Trump administration last year.
Should Schools Ban Chocolate Milk?
So, is it better for students to drink chocolate milk than no milk at all?
The School Nutrition Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all support offering chocolate milk in schools, but their reasoning is tactical: flavoring is a useful way to get students to drink enough milk, as well as the important nutrients that comes with it. Most milk consumed in school is flavored, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and it’s still healthier than many other surgery drinks.
The Trump Administration echoed that argument in its decision to relax some of the Obama-era regulations on school meals. In addition to allowing low-fat flavored milk, the new rules also eased requirements for sodium and whole grains in school meals served through federal programs.
As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue tweeted when his agency published it’s final rule change in December last year: “Nutritious school meals don’t do anyone any good if kids just throw them into the trash.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics does, however, says that flavored milk should be avoided for children under the age of five.
But not all pediatricians and health experts are on board with this lesser-of-two-evils reasoning, saying that avoiding sugary drinks is the best way to prevent childhood obesity.
This divide among experts helps fuel what often turns out to be highly charged debates over chocolate and flavored milk in schools.
Despite pushback, flavored milk remains a mainstay in most schools. Nearly 80 percent of school districts offer flavored milk in their cafeterias, according to the School Nutrition Association’s 2018 survey of its members. That’s back up to 2014 levels after a dip in 2016 when 70 percent of districts reported serving flavored milk.
And just as chocolate milk doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, neither does the debate: New York City is currently considering banning the drink from its schools.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.