U.S. Schools' War Against Chocolate Milk

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Don Farrall / Getty

It would sound like a joke if everyone weren't so up in arms about it. Taking a stand against chocolate milk? It's like canceling Christmas. What could possibly be wrong with something that brings children such joy?

A lot, according to some nutrition experts and school districts that are removing the brown liquid from lunchrooms. One 8-oz. serving of reduced-fat chocolate milk has nearly as many calories and sugar as a 12-oz. can of Coke. Encouraging students to regularly consume the drink, they say, is contributing to an already worrying childhood obesity crisis.

As chocolate milk opponents lobby state and federal officials, the dairy industry has responded with an estimated $1 million campaign dubbed "Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk." Launched in early November, the YouTube-intensive strategy is designed to highlight the drink's health benefits (vitamin D, calcium, potassium) and to counter the critics who have pegged it as nothing more than a sugar-laden snack drink.

While milk has been the keystone of America's school lunches since the federally subsidized program was established in 1946, the role of chocolate (and other flavored) milk has become a focus of late following a 2006 rule that required schools to establish comprehensive "wellness programs." Public school districts in Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo. — two of America's more progressive towns — have removed the drink from their list of daily offerings, opting for low-fat, organic white milk instead. That's a perfect way to force kids to shun milk completely, says the dairy industry.

"Flavored milk really fits two needs," says Ann Marie Krautheim, senior vice president of nutrition affairs for the National Dairy Council. "It meets kids' taste preferences, and it provides the nutrition that they don't get elsewhere."

Some nutrition experts reject such either/or simplification. "There's almost this threat, like "If you don't drink chocolate milk, then your children will not get the nutrition they need!" says Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. For Schwartz, the dairy industry's campaign is one as concerned with market share as it is with nutrition. "The real issue is a food-industry segment saying, "We want to market our product to children. So we are going to add extra sugar that is completely unnecessary to improve the taste so that kids will drink more of our product." And since more than half of all flavored milk in the U.S. is sold to children in schools, she says, there's a lot to be lost if chocolate milk gets kicked out of the cafeteria.

Take Colorado's Boulder Valley School District, which removed chocolate milk from its lunchrooms this fall at the recommendation of Ann Cooper, the new director of nutrition services. That's about 30,000 students in 50 schools that are no longer stocking chocolate milk. Cooper is outspoken in her belief that school cafeterias need to be overhauled — fresh ingredients, more fruits and vegetables, less sugary snacks. "I'm all for parents having chocolate milk with their kids at home once in a while, or on Sunday morning with waffles, but it doesn't have any place in schools on a daily basis," she says. If a child chooses chocolate milk instead of regular milk every single day for a year, she says, they'll gain about 3 lbs. because of the extra sugar and calories. "Over the course of a K-12 education, that can add up," says Cooper.

As a National Dairy Council video on YouTube points out, "Chocolate milk is the most popular milk choice among children, and it only has 60 more calories than white milk does." Only 60 more calories? "That sort of thing drives me crazy," says Schwartz. "People don't become obese overnight. You have too much sugar here and too much sugar there, and it adds up and adds up and sooner or later just becomes the norm."