Why and How to Reintroduce 1% Chocolate Milk in Your School

By Dani Sheffield on 09/04/2019

Tags: Obesity, Research, Laws and Regulations, Kids Health

You’ve heard it said, “it’s not nutrition unless they eat it.” We’re always looking for that fine balance between feeding students high-quality, nutritious foods and serving them familiar items they will actually eat – especially in school meal programs. One meal item that straddles that line is chocolate milk – though it’s been contentiously debated amongst dietitians, passionate child health advocates and child nutrition directors for the better part of a decade.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences recommended standards for several child nutrition programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted most of the IOM’s recommendations in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 - updating federal nutrition standards to include more low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and calories. Milk, either low-fat or fat-free, is required to be offered with each school meal. Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, if milk was flavored, it had to be fat-free (unless the district filed an exemption).

Our district filed for the exemption for the 2018-2019 school year, not knowing the restriction was about to be lifted. For us, it was a matter of choice for the students – the decision allowed our district flexibility in meeting students’ taste and nutrition needs. In addition, several studies backing the benefits of 1% flavored milk in schools further supported this decision.

In the context of school meals, about 66% of milk served is flavored milk. We know kids love it, and new data shows that offering 1% flavored milk (as opposed to just fat-free flavored milk) may help increase student milk consumption. Milk’s unique nutrient package can be difficult to replace, so options that encourage milk consumption could increase the chance that students meet the three servings per day recommendation for dairy and help close the gap on key nutrients they need for development.

What About the Sugar?

Many people are concerned about the sugar in chocolate milk, and this can be heightened by misconceptions about the amounts. However, it’s important to remember that chocolate milk has the same nine essential nutrients as white milk. And just like white milk, 1% flavored milk is the number one food source of nutrients of concern (nutrients kids are often falling short on): calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Parents might be surprised to know that children who drink flavored milk get more of these underconsumed nutrients compared to non-flavored milk drinkers. 

Flavored milk in schools today has 44 fewer calories than a decade ago and only 25 more calories than its white milk counterpart. While parents are right to be concerned about their kids eating too much sugar, they should examine the diet as a whole. Flavored milk only contributes 4% of added sugar to the diets of children. Eliminating foods with added sugar and limited nutritional value goes a lot further towards managing a child’s sugar intake without hurting their nutritional status.

Survey Results Point to Many Potential Benefits

In Aldine ISD, students appreciated the option of 1% flavored milk. In fact, we saw a 4.4% increase in 1% chocolate milk sold in the 2018-2019 school year, over fat-free chocolate milk the prior year. Our data aligns with data from a survey conducted by National Dairy Council with 317 schools in eight states that implemented 1% flavored milk in the 2017-2018 school year. The national survey data showed that:

  • 58% of schools saw an increase in milk sold
  • 82% of schools reported that it was easy/very easy to accommodate 1% flavored milk within the calorie maximums for their menus
  • 79% of schools reported that it was easy/very easy to include the cost within their financial bottom line
  • Students in 73% of the schools liked 1% flavored milk better
  • Nearly a third of schools saw an increase in average daily participation in meal programs and received additional federal reimbursements

Suggestions for Overcoming Barriers

Whether it’s the desire to “save the calories for the center of the plate,” concerns about cost or a myriad of other barriers, here are my top three suggestions for successfully reintroducing 1% chocolate milk:

  1. Prioritize Milk – Whether your goal is decreasing food waste, increasing consumption or improving nutrition, make milk a priority for your students. Whether low-fat or fat-free white or flavored milk, all real cow’s milk is an excellent source of nine essential nutrients important for healthy growth and development.
  2. Get the Community on Board – There is often misconception from parents, administrators and community members about the nutritional value of chocolate milk. Have an open and honest dialogue about this “elephant in the room” to help them to feel more confident about the choice to switch. If you feel you need more evidence to gain support, conduct your own taste test. Let students sample your current milk choices as well as 1% chocolate milk and vote for their favorite. A blind taste test is fun for students and can give you measurable results.
  3. Consider the Big Picture – Food literacy is often a missing piece in growing children. In my school district, we’re doing more than feeding students nutritious food, we’re feeding them knowledge about that food. Aldine ISD has an initiative called Learn, Grow, Cook where fourth and fifth grade students take a field trip to our district garden. They learn about MyPlate and nutrition; explore the garden, where they can help plant or harvest; and have an opportunity to cook with the chef in our kitchen. Principals are so hungry to offer this to their students that we have a waitlist.

Initiatives like these are great ways to get kids excited about eating healthy. Afterall, foods are only nutritious if they eat them.