Back to School: Chocolate Milk Wars
So, it’s back to school already. And the milk wars are heating up. Today’s NYT Food section has a great feature on the fight over schools offering chocolate milk as part of a “nutritious lunch.” Kim Severson, “A School Fight Over Chocolate Milk”
Best quote of the article: “Saying we need to add sugar and flavoring to milk to get kids to drink it is like saying we need to feed kids apple pie if they don’t like apples.” Ann Cooper (she runs the Boulder CO school lunch program, one of the districts that is going back to school chocolate milk free).
The key to the whole fight comes down, as all else surrounding food, to money: the schools only get federal lunch funds if your school lunch offering includes a grain, a vegetable, a fruit and a protein. And milk. And you only get the funds if kids take three of these five offerings. So chocolate milk, being a popular choice with the kiddies, knocks out one of the three mandatory picks. Given that the easy chocolate milk provides more leeway for kids to pass on mystery meat and gray “green” beans, schools are crying foul at attempts to insist that milk is milk, and chocolate milk is something else entirely.
Back in November (2009), when the National Dairy Council started its campaign to save chocolate milk at the school lunch counter, I wrote a post somewhere else. It didn’t make it to Candy Professor then, but it seems just as timely now. So here it is, my two cents on the Chocolate Milk Wars:
Have you raised your hand for chocolate milk? Or have you raised your finger?
The National Dairy Council (farmers) has teamed up with the Milk Processor Education Program (processors) “to provide the latest facts and science on Chocolate Milk’s role in children’s diets.” Check USA Today (12 November 2009) for a full page ad, or the web site and petition at http://www.raiseyourhand4milk.com. Seems those pesky activists and parents and nutritionists have gotten together again, and this time they want to take the chocolate milk out of the school lunch room. How dare they! After all, they say, “chocolate milk is the most popular milk choice in schools and kids will drink less milk (and get fewer nutrients) if it’s taken away.”
Really? Would it be so bad if kids drank less chocolate milk? Yeah, I get that it’s made out of milk. But is it really food? Interestingly, the National Confectioners Association was what brought the chocolate milk promotion to my attention. You know, the candy industry.
I have been thinking about candy in relation to food in the wake of Michael Pollan’s “defense of food.” Pollan encourages us to eat real food, stuff made from plants and animals in traditional, pre-industrial, recognizable forms. The highly processed, the inert, the “fortified,” the refined: these are products of industry, and not food so much as “food like substances.”
Once we can discern the difference between food and “food-like substances,” our diet returns to something healthful and sustaining and simple. And if we are mostly eating food, then there is no harm in eating some candy. So long as we’re clear, that candy is not food, not a substitute for food, and not to replace or displace food. Candy is defensible as part of our diet only when we draw a sharp line between food, what we enjoy as we nourish our bodies, and candy, something we eat purely for pleasure.
Which brings me to chocolate milk. Is it food? or is it candy? Although nobody says it this way exactly, this question is really at the crux of this latest flare up. In fact, this is just the latest salvo in a long-standing fight over the role of candy in school lunches. This was one the candy industry was probably fated to lose, but believe it or not, there was a time when candy was on the “approved” list. Clearly, if the fight now is about chocolate milk rather than chocolate bars, times have changed. But the terms of the fight have stayed eerily constant.
Chocolate milk is an odd hybrid, with an interesting history of its own. In the nineteenth century, there really was no “chocolate milk” as we know it today. Chocolate in sweetened milk was for sick people, old people, people who couldn’t stomach much else. Chocolate was viewed as providing sustenance and strength to the weak and infirm, a sort of tonic with vaguely healthful properties.
Chocolate milk in the twentieth century came to be increasingly associated with childhood. Prior to the “chocolate milk revolution” in the 1950s, cold chocolate milk was not really feasible. Hot chocolate was the childhood equivalent of hot coffee, a combination of sweetness and milkiness that seemed essentially infantile. But hot chocolate required heating milk (a delicate operation) and measuring and mixing at the stove. Not difficult, but not something kids would do alone. Instant chocolate milk mix changed the playing field: Nestle, Carnation, Ovaltine were all introduced in the early 1950s, a time when food engineering introduced the TV dinner and other “convenience” monstrosities to the American table. Now children could enjoy delicious chocolate milk any time, with no mess and no trouble. Ads for these products feature cherubic children and pudgy hands mixing and drinking dark brown elixirs.
Chocolate milk was a big part of twentieth century childhood, to be sure. But chocolate milk at home as a snack or a treat in the context of all the other foods that mother has chosen is one thing. And for the most part, those 1950s kids were skinny and didn’t know a thing about diabetes or pediatric heart disease.
For most U.S. kids in the twenty first century, chocolate milk every day on the school lunch line is something else. For kids with serious food and health issues, the line between food and candy needs to be drawn, and it needs to be crystal clear. And we all need to acknowledge: chocolate milk is candy. That is to say, chocolate milk should be enjoyed as a treat, occasionally, not as a daily beverage.
They say kids won’t drink milk unless its flavored. They say at least chocolate milk has the nutrients of milk. They say it’s better than soda.
By this logic, I should have a screwdriver with my oatmeal every morning. Because otherwise, I just won’t drink that orange juice.
Teach kids to drink soda, they drink soda. Teach them soda is a bad choice, give them water, they’ll drink water. Chocolate milk is no different. Pandering to the lowest denominator, the sweet tooth, and insisting that children will do no better if given the chance is just patronizing. The school lunch programs are making huge improvements. In the New York City schools, they are eating the whole grain breads, they are learning about fresh fruits and vegetables. Alice Waters has her kids eating okra and kale, for pete’s sake. Will kids drink less milk when it’s not sweet chocolate? Some. But that’s because they had the chocolate to start with. We need a little re-education here. There is no reason they can’t learn to appreciate the difference between real food and nutritionally tarted-up candy.