Thursday, April 2, 2015

Chocolaty Conundrum

My son started kindergarten in September. After his first week at school, he very sweetly said, “Mom, can you please pack me a drink?” I had completely forgotten about a drink in his cool new lunchbox! Rookie move, Mom. This conversation resulted in a dash to the store to find shelf-stable, non-flavored, low-fat milk that he could take with him. Nope. I could only find chocolate milk in single servings, and even if I found white milk it would be much too expensive to pack on a regular basis. So, I asked a friend what she does. She packs a small re-usable water bottle, which I heartily adopted as my own practice.

When I asked my son what he had been drinking during the “big lapse,” he said his wonderful teacher had bought him milk for a few days. He had chosen chocolate (of course!). I promise – I did not extol him on the virtues of white milk. But we did talk a little – just about 30 seconds –about how chocolate milk is a treat.

Here was what was going through my head during our chat. Milk provides a lot of nutrients that kids need – namely calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein. But one cup of low-fat chocolate milk has more calories (190 versus 110 calories), and sugar (31 g versus 12 g) than low-fat white milk. For reference, one cup of soda has 95 calories and 26 grams of sugar. So it is not really about the chocolate, it is about the added sugar. It is about setting him up to make healthy choices. How do I encourage him to buy milk at school and give him freedom of choice knowing he’ll most likely choose chocolate milk?

National nutrition guidelines for all foods and drinks in schools that take part in the USDA School Foods Program allow schools to offer chocolate milk. Years ago, before these national guidelines, I worked on a set of model nutrition guidelines for schools in Washington. I remember many conversations about whether or not chocolate milk should be allowed.

One side of the debate says that schools should offer flavored milk because kids are more likely to drink milk if flavored milk is offered. Removing flavored milk from schools may decrease kids’ intake of those key nutrients (protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium).

Another perspective is that schools should adopt wellness policies that restrict flavored milk, and kids will simply buy non-flavored milk. Still another view taking hold in recent years is that, rather than banning chocolate milk, schools should use a behavioral economics strategy to increase the likelihood that kids will choose white milk. For example, make white milk appear more convenient and normal by making sure at least half of the milk cartons in the cooler are white milk, and put the white milk at the front of the cooler.

Ideally, school would make this a non-issue for us, or industry would offer a lower sugar product, but in reality, here’s where I land: most mornings, I ask if he wants water or if he’s going to buy milk. If he says milk, I can tell by his tone if he means chocolate (there is a smile in there), but I ask anyway. If it is chocolate, I don’t pack cookies or yogurt, and he knows the chocolate milk is the treat in his lunch.

Given the recent flood of treats on Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, I have a feeling this is just the beginning of food and drink conundrums at school!