Fifth-graders from across San Luis Coastal Unified School District are leading a charge to decide whether chocolate milk should return to their schools’ lunch menus.
And their effort coincides with a renewed national debate on school nutrition that addresses that very same question.
Following a three-month research project as part of their curriculum, fifth-graders in the district’s 10 schools wrote papers arguing whether or not to bring back the drink. Results were split down the middle, prompting district officials to temporarily bring back fat-free chocolate milk last week to test its popularity.
That survey wrapped up Friday, and officials will review the results to determine whether the change resulted in more children drinking milk, and whether it’s significant enough to bring it before the district’s Student Wellness Committee, and ultimately the school board, for a vote.
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Erin Primer, director of Food Services for the district, said that she and district officials are reluctant to roll back any improvements in student nutrition, but noted that the case of fat-free chocolate milk may be worth exploring.
“We’re hoping to find how much more milk is consumed when we offered them flavored milk,” Primer said Friday. “There are nine essential nutrients in milk. ... With (offering) just white milk, many kids will not drink it at all, meaning they’re not getting these nutrients.”
On Monday, the chocolate milk debate erupted on the national stage when a small mention in a 1,665-page government spending bill submitted to Congress last week directed U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to allow states to grant schools exemptions so they may serve flavored low-fat milk and bread products that are not rich in whole grains.
If passed, the bill does not mandate a return of chocolate milk, but it would push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels and bar federal funds from paying the salaries of government officials to implement nutrition standards.
The bill would continue funding the government through Sept. 30, and would apply only to the 2017-18 school year.
Perdue in a statement Monday said he would re-evaluate rules put in place during the Obama administration, which he said are too expensive and restrictive.
Any permanent loosening of nutrition standards would need to be included in legislation, and even then, local school districts have discretion to impose stricter rules, Primer said.
A serving of the nonfat chocolate milk now offered at San Luis Coastal middle and high schools contains 19 grams of sugar, 15 of which are naturally occurring, Primer said. The question is whether the nutrients the children may otherwise not get are worth the 4 grams of added sugar, she said.
“We’re willing to look at this issue. Snacks, chips, the dreaded Pop-Tart — those are different,” Primer said. “At least with milk we know they’re getting those essential nutrients.”
Flavored milk is not served in the district’s elementary schools, which instead provide fat-free and 1-percent-fat white milk. State law requires that schools offer at least two types of milk for school lunches. Nonfat chocolate milk and 1-percent-fat white milk are served at the district’s middle and high schools.
It’s not about chocolate milk. It’s about a larger process and for them to see that they have a voice.
Erin Primer, San Luis Coastal Unified School District Food Services director
Responses to the fifth-grade project were evenly split, Primer said. Regardless of which side the students took, they were required to identify and use reliable sources of data in support of their arguments, rather than random internet articles or TV shows. Surprisingly, Primer said, many students reversed their argument as they did more research.
As the papers came in on the week of April 24, district officials surveyed the students’ white milk consumption during lunch to provide a baseline for last week, when nonfat chocolate milk was temporarily back on the menu.
Primer said the timing of Purdue’s statements on student nutrition were purely coincidental, but that the growing national debate has encouraged the students to get involved. Despite which direction the district eventually takes, Primer said the children directly participated in the process.
“It was about, let’s show the kids that this is democracy in action,” Primer said. “It’s not about chocolate milk. It’s about a larger process and for them to see that they have a voice.”