Schools, Rules, and Ingredients

dairy cow

In July, new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules will kick in, affecting 100,000 American schools. The Smart Snacks in Schools standards actually concern cafeteria meals, too. For instance, the calorie limit for an entree item is 350 calories, while the snack limit is 200 calories. Whole grains are a major component of the new requirements. Trans fat is forbidden, and the total fat has to comprise less than 35% of a meal’s total calories. There are salt limits, and a snack’s proportion of sugar can’t be more than 35% by weight.

Although plain water is an acceptable beverage for vending machines, many schools don’t supply drinking water for free. Milk can be low-fat (with no added flavoring) or nonfat (if flavored), or a nutritionally equivalent milk alternative. Fruit and vegetable juices are O.K. at full strength, or diluted with water. Elementary school kids will be limited to 8-ounce servings of fluid, with 12 ounces allowed for middle school and high school students. High school students are even allowed caffeinated beverages, as long as they are low-calorie.

The chocolate milk wars

Florida’s historic disagreement over chocolate milk, described by Donald F. Kettl as “an enormous policy battle,” is an interesting sidebar to the school nutrition story. A few years back, the state was the site of massive butting of heads when the Board of Education attempted to remove chocolate milk from school lunchrooms. The bureaucracy was, after all, tasked with eliminating sweetened beverages and fattening desserts.

This was no trivial matter. In 2010, the four biggest school districts in the state collectively paid $13,000,000 for flavored milk. The chocolate-flavored version alone accounted for 49 million half-pint servings sold. Kettl elaborates:

The standard half-pint serving of low-fat milk has 102 calories, of which 21 come from fat. Chocolate milk has more than twice the calories (226) and almost four times as many calories from fat (78).

To call the U.S. dairy industry powerful is an understatement. One section of the USDA, the National Milk Processor Board, is in the business of making sure the dairy industry sells the maximum possible amount of its product. Another section of the USDA, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, is in the business of making sure school kids don’t get fat. Still another section of the USDA, the National School Lunch Program, actually provides the dairy products found in the subsidized meals available to economically disadvantaged school kids.

The existence of not just two, but three factions with mutually incompatible aims added up to a classic conflict of interest. Florida’s agriculture commissioner tried to assert his office’s supremacy in making school lunch decisions, but the Board of Education stepped up and declared that the children, not the agriculture industry, took first priority.

Things also got ugly in one of the nation’s wealthiest areas, Fairfax County, Va. The schools banned chocolate milk, the students protested, and the ban was rescinded. Kettl writes:

Fairfax’s new chocolate milk is low-fat and contains sucrose instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Some critics of the old chocolate milk say the switch is healthier because sucrose is less heavily processed. Others say that sugar is sugar and it doesn’t make much difference how it comes into the diet. The Corn Refiners Association shares that opinion.

Can anything advocated by the Corn Refiners Association be good? But it doesn’t want to lose out, in places where high fructose corn syrup is still allowed, on the lucrative school milk business. Also, some people suggest that as long as calcium and vitamin D are getting into nutritionally challenged kids, what does it matter if a little sucrose (or even a little HFCS) gets in there too?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What Does This Mean For Your School?” SmartSnacksInSchool.com, 2014
Source: “The Policy Battle Behind Chocolate Milk,” Governing.com, 06/01/11
Image by Linda Tanner

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