NYC Proposes School Flavored Milk Ban: My Thoughts

Earlier this week, the New York Post reported that New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, is contemplating a ban on flavored milk in the district’s school cafeterias. Advocates have cheered this news, while some of the city’s parents are apparently quite upset about it.  The state’s dairy industry, which has been struggling in recent years, has also pushed back hard against the rumored proposal.

My own views on flavored milk in schools have evolved quite a bit over the years. For example, longtime TLT readers might remember my widely read* 2011 post called “My Problem with Jamie Oliver’s War on Flavored Milk,” in which I questioned the celebrity chef’s laser-like focus on banning flavored milk in the Los Angeles Unified School District, as part of his Food Revolution television show that year.

My main objection was that Oliver could have used his megaphone to highlight bigger problems in America’s school meal program. But I also defended flavored milk in its own right: Dairy provides children with protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin D and phosphorous, I wrote back then, and kids tend to like it more than other foods providing those same nutrients. And as I recounted in another TLT post (somewhat uncomfortably) endorsing flavored milk, this one published in 2010, I’d also been reassured by my kids’ pediatrician that milk’s nutritive benefits far outweighed a few grams of sugar.

These days, though, I am entirely supportive of efforts, like the rumored New York City proposal, to take flavored milk out of schools. The reasons behind my evolution are these:

First, the harms of excess sugar are by now well documented, including an increased risk of tooth decay, weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (even in those of normal weight). Second, we now have clear guidance from the American Heart Association on how much added sugar is too much for kids —no more than 25 grams, or 4 to 6 teaspoons, a day.  Yet just one box of Horizon flavored milk would account for half that quota, and that’s on top all the other ways in which are our kids are deluged with added sugars: classroom treats, sugary school breakfasts, other sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juice (experts regard its naturally occurring sugars as equally problematic), and sugar-sweetened savory foods like ketchup and salad dressing. Third, as many concerned school nutrition professionals have observed, kids will often fill up on flavored milk and spurn the rest of their school lunch— particularly when kids are given too little time to eat in the first place. And finally, there’s at least some evidence that some of the health claims for milk—which most of us have taken as gospel—are overstated.

For these reasons, several progressive districts around the country have already banned flavored milk, including Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Boulder.**  But if you still  need convincing, I urge you to read an excellent analysis of the possible New York City ban by reporter and advocate Andrea Strong, called “The Dark Side of Chocolate Milk in NYC Schools,” published yesterday by Hunter College’s Food Policy Center. As Strong reports, there are some shocking incongruities in the way New York City treats flavored milk in other contexts, such as its correctional facilities:

New York City’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has phased out sugar-sweetened beverages because of their ties to costly obesity-related diseases. Ten years ago DOC Commissioner Martin Horn told Gothamist, “the move will save money in the long run because healthier inmates will be less prone to strokes, heart attacks or diabetic shock on the city’s watch.” Today, the DOC bans both chocolate milk and juice. And yet, NYC’s Department of Education (DOE) continues to serve chocolate milk (and juice) to 1.1 million children a day.

Pretty eye-opening, no?


* When teachers want to stage classroom debates or teach argumentative writing, they try to find topics kids can relate to—like whether flavored milk should be in school cafeterias! Based on the crazy-high stats for my Jamie Oliver post and the information I can glean about who’s been looking at it, it’s apparently become a useful crib sheet for students assigned to the “pro” side of the debate.  😮

** Los Angeles did ban flavored milk in response to Jamie Oliver’s pressure, only to bring it back in 2016. The 180-degree shift was purportedly in response to significant waste of white milk, but as I argued in my 2016 post, the district could have simply told kids they didn’t have to take any milk at all.


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