There is an ongoing debate among nutritionists/dietitians on whether kids are getting enough calcium on a daily basis, and, whether or not milk is the best way to achieve that. Both sides have highly regarded support for their views. National Institutes of Health says kids are not getting enough calcium on a daily basis therefore providing milk can fulfill that need. Harvard School of Public Health suggests other foods beside just milk to achieve the appropriate calcium consumption.
So, as we work to improve school lunches, where should the calcium come from?
From a cost and convenience standpoint, given where schools are at with culinary skills and necessary resources, I agree that milk is the best solution to add an adequate serving of calcium to school lunch. This has been the solution for the past several decades. And, more recently, many schools have begun to offer chocolate milk to encourage kids to get their calcium. (Important note: please see asterisk at the end of this post.)
Is chocolate milk a healthy source of calcium?
Milk is an adequate source of calcium. And, chocolate milk contains the same amount of calcium as white milk. I'm fine with chocolate milk, but I'd like to see some improvements it's going to be part of school lunch. I want it lower in sugar, lower in calories, and be sweetened from a natural, less refined source. Kids today consume too much added sugar as it is, and this, combined with diets that contain heavily processed foods and not being physically active, is contributing to shorter life expectancy for today's youth. That's scary business.
I also think that schools have some responsibilities, here. For starters, consider only offering milk at lunch (not when breakfasts or snacks are served) and maybe go a step further and only offer it once or twice a week, on a rotating schedule so that when it is offered, it's something special, not a daily expectation. This can be tricky, because kids might demand it on the days it is not there. This leads to a much larger responsibility — schools need a healthy living philosophy and need to communicate this effectively to students and families.
Where chocolate milk is concerned, this communication should include constant dialog with parents about understanding the effects of a high sugar diet. It should be discussed in a non-threatening way, so parents don't feel attacked or feel like they're being judged or told they're doing something wrong. We need a different mindset about eating/drinking sweets. These sweet treats should be just that – occasional celebration treats, not everyday foods. Schools should move past the politically correct stance on not wanting to upset parents, and instead, take a strong stance for the students they serve. As educators, this is an opportunity to teach families that lifestyle choice of eating poorly needs to change because it has a negative impact on our society from a health and economic standpoint.
Is chocolate milk (or milk in general) the best long-term solution for getting calcium in school lunch?
I don't see milk as being a long-term solution in the school lunchrooms, and some change will need to occur. Schools will need to address a growing population of lactose intolerance as well as a generation of parents who are increasingly more conscious about food and nutrition. Milk has been rapidly dropping in consumption in our country, and this trend is likely to continue. As we work to change perceptions, and increase understanding about healthy sources of nutritious foods, schools can and should work toward more diverse offerings for a serving of calcium.
Got milk? That's great. Got chocolate milk? That's fine for now. But, it's a much bigger issue. It's time that schools provide a solid, supportive, voice about this, start discussions around conscious eating and set long term expectations and goals for healthier living as families and communities.
Photo Credit: Antimony Funk!, Flickr Creative Commons.