The XX Factor

Chocolate Milk: Better Than No Milk, or Juice in Disguise?

When we debate chocolate milk in schools, we’re talking about far more than just the three teaspoons of sugar included in every half pint. We’re talking about how we feed our kids, who feeds our kids, and whether we should strive for perfection, improvement, or just throw up our hands and hope that, like us, they’ll learn to struggle with their own eating issues in the fullness of time.

Every year, it seems, brings a new touchstone in school lunches. With soda machines and fast-food advertising now either out, or at least out of sight of the parents who object to them, chocolate milk has become the target of choice, and it’s easy to see why. To pull chocolate milk (or any flavored milk) and replace it with regular requires nothing more than a few strokes of the pen for a pat on the back. Bigger changes-eliminating the giant cinnamon bun offered as lunch once a month at our local public elementary school, for example, or replacing frozen-food-service vegetables with fresh local ones, or finding a way to get kids to actually eat the daily apple instead of tossing it-those take time and effort and may or may not succeed.

Chocolate milk’s been banned in Boulder (where chef Ann Cooper is doing a lot more than banning flavored milk for the schools) and many other districts. Barrington, Ill., is considering bringing it back after students petitioned for chocolate milk’s return. Students in part of Pennsylvania needn’t worry-their district agrees with the i ndustry’s new ad campaign and say they’d rather have students drinking chocolate milk -which still contains calcium and other nutrients-than water, juice, or soda (the latter presumably brought from home).

One issue is that the chocolate milk offered with school lunches is subsidized by taxpayers. In a nation consumed with fears about rising childhood obesity levels, subsidizing the consumption of any food that’s nutritionally less than perfect raises all kinds of red flags (although our national commitment to corn subsidies suggests that we would very much like to have this one both ways). The larger issue is that controlling what our kids eat has proven difficult for even the most dedicated parent. On a personal level, one trip to the grocery store reveals aisle upon aisle of foods far less nutritious than chocolate milk. To achieve some kind of balanced diet in a world where the balance of food offered is so off is difficult at best. To achieve it for a whole coming generation seems impossible. Limiting chocolate milk, on the other hand-that we can do.