How Sweet is Advocates’ Chocolate Milk Victory?

by Dana Woldow on January 26, 2010

The news that high fructose corn syrup will be replaced with table sugar in chocolate milk offered in San Francisco school cafeterias made page 1 recently. Many parents cheered, because high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is widely reviled. But does this change really benefit anyone? Nutritionists are quick to point out that “sugar is sugar,” and despite the horrible reputation of HFCS, many say the two types of sweetener have the same effect on the body. Although school district officials and parents repeatedly asked Berkeley Farms dairy to reduce the sugar, the new chocolate milk has the same calorie count (150), and grams of sugar (13 naturally occurring in the milk, plus 14 added), as the old version. So was this change worth the effort?

As a longtime advocate for better school food, and for getting more students to eat the school meals, I have to say yes. School meals must meet nutritional standards set by the US Department of Agriculture, and USDA research shows that students who eat school lunch receive better nutrition from their meal than students who bring lunch from home or get lunch elsewhere.

Identifying the barriers which keep students from eating the cafeteria meals, and overcome those barriers, is vital to getting more students to eat school lunch. The barriers include stubborn issues like the stigma some students feel when they accept a “free” meal; or getting teenagers to remember to dig the meal application out of their backpack (where it has fallen to the bottom and been crushed into an accordion shape); or trying to speed up lunch lines that are so long students are left without enough time to eat.

These barriers can take years to overcome. Occasionally, though, there is a barrier which is relatively easy to tear down. Many parents and students don’t like HFCS and don’t want it in their school food. School officials listened to their complaints, took action, and got results. The hardest part of making change is winning the first fight. Now that Berkeley Farms has shown that they are responsive to consumer preference, there’s hope that they will also reduce the added sugar in their milk, producing a healthier product.

Why not just stop serving chocolate milk altogether, instead of asking for less sugar? Unfortunately, when chocolate milk has been temporarily unavailable at schools, many children don’t take milk at all, and miss out on the calcium, protein, and vitamins they need to thrive. Ideally every child would happily drink plain milk, but in fact many won’t.Everyone agrees that school food needs improvement, but with schools in San Francisco and around the country facing unprecedented budget shortfalls, parents feel helpless to make positive changes.

Getting the local dairy to remove an unpopular substance from their chocolate milk may seem like a small victory, but for parents and students who wanted this change, it is very empowering. It proves that it is possible to get a large food company to change their product in response to consumer preference, and that is a victory to be savored. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Dana Woldow is the parent of three students who went through San Francisco public schools K-12. She has been an advocate for better school food since 2002.

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