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Finding Peace In The Chocolate Milk War:

I grew up in Wisconsin but you should stick around for the rest of this column because it might not go exactly the way you’d think with me being a child of “America’s Dairyland.” It’s true that Wisconsin hovers somewhere in the middle of “fattest states” depending on what study you read. The folks back there also like to drink beer and smoke in bars. Families will hand down recipes for casseroles featuring 3 different types of cheeses… and then there’s dessert. Often, it’s cheesecake. I love my home state, but it has a legacy of troubling health habits and diets.

So it seemed natural that I would react to the current debate going on over whether Santa Monica-Malibu United School District schools should stop serving flavored milk, specifically chocolate milk. What’s impressive about this issue is that, on the surface, it looks like just another of those often tiring “food Nazis” mash-ups that ensue when cities start talking about laws to lower salt and fat intake. But in fact, there are two rather clear and worthwhile sides to consider in the issue.

Each half-pint carton of chocolate milk has eight grams more sugar than skim milk. Sugary sodas and so-called “soft drinks” are simply off the charts, so we won’t open that up. And sugar is shown to have a definitive link to obesity, one that is not displaced by added exercise or eating more carrots. Put another way, while drinking milk is generally good, there’s a view of sugar as a kind of enabling drug when it comes to the serious issue of child obesity.

But the flavored milk controversy is burdened, if you will, with the simple fact that milk offers substantial nutritional advantages. It has vitamins, minerals, protein, and calcium. And up to two-thirds of American children are not getting enough calcium. Flavored milk opponents counter that these deficiencies are easily made up with other healthier foods. This, then, is the crux of the chocolate milk war.

But I think there may be other issues hovering over chocolate milk served in schools. One is whether schools have not only a role but an obligation to be the place where kids should get their eating information straight up, no chocolate chaser. Thus, if schools allow chocolate milk as a kind of well-intentioned treat, does that send the wrong message about the role of “treats” in a child’s diet? Would we then be looking at a ban on candy for Valentine’s Day and Halloween-related school events because it simply is wrong to have schools support any role for candy in kid’s diets? I’ll have to get back to you on this in October.

Then there’s the idea of communicating to children that there should be trade-offs when it comes to eating. This probably goes back to something the Boomer generation remembers about the family dinners of its youth, which often included a deal that if one finished the rough-sledding through beets or green vegetables… there would be dessert. The broccoli sat on your plate, challenging you, almost daring you. But over your Mom’s shoulder was a plate of delicious Toll House cookies. Parents endured the faces we made while we chewed our vegetable penance, to some extent digging with each mouthful to the treasure that lay ahead.

It wouldn’t surprise me if what I’ve just described has led to such modern-day events as the iced coffee with whipped cream that we have somehow “earned.” Airlines offer hot chocolate chip cookies as a means of taking the wrinkles out of air travel, or at least sprinkling them with sugar. We know that television commercials are rife with the idea of letting yourself enjoy “one of life’s little pleasures”, and those ads are never for asparagus. Has that “reward” system evolved into making it pleasurable to today’s kids to have a healthy school lunch by adding the sugar in chocolate milk?

Milk has struggled to re-position itself for several decades now, and in the process added “Got (whatever)?” to the culture. I have milk in my coffee in the morning, since cream has been banned from our home under the 1997 Half n’ Half Act which clearly stipulates that someone my age will never have cream except by stealing it from gas station coffee counters. I use almond milk on my breakfast cereal, and we eat mostly goat cheese. Strict vegans often align milk consumption with “drinking blood,” a view that might be a premise for the next HBO historical series. Still I don’t think milk is bad, except that you can ingest too much milk and the fat that can come with it.

School kids get skim milk, and the chocolate milk in question is also skim milk. But I personally hold to the notion of schools setting paradigms. Beyond the book learning, we know we want schools to teach things that lead to better living. We look to schools to teach tolerance and give children proper socialization skills, and to make them want to aspire. And now we know that we can’t count on parents to do 100 percent of the job of laying in proper attitudes about nutrition. Much as I love a cold glass of chocolate milk on a hot day, I think we have to let schools do the simple things that could mean a lot later in life. Saying to a child, without hesitation, “This is what a good balanced meal looks like” has become one of those simple things. My apologies to the dairy industry, and to all lovers of a cold glass of chocolate milk, but… it’s an easy change, and we should make it.

The SMMUSD Board of Education voted 5-2 on Wednesday to reject the proposal to ban flavored milk for the 2011-12 school year.

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