STATS ARTICLES 2010
Got milk? Not anymore if schools have anything to do with it.
Trevor Butterworth, August 30, 2010
First we stop the kids drinking whole milk because itís fattening; then when they switch to chocolate milk, we ban it because itís sugary!
The idea that people’s behavior can be improved by a gentle nudge, or that redemptive habits may be encouraged by a bit of tax ju-jitsu, has become something of an intellectual intoxicant among government and policy wonks. But as with many stimulants, the end result can be downright depressing.
Take New York City's Department of Education (DOE) and its campaign to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity. Last January, the DOE announced that its project to replace whole milk in schools with lower-fat milk “likely has improved the overall nutritional environment of NYC public schoolchildren.” And because it was “likely” to have worked, it was a plan that other school districts should consider adopting, officials said at the time.
As STATS noted, what the DOE didn’t do was weigh a single kid or even measure actual consumption; instead, researchers added up the calories and fat of the whole milk previously purchased by New York’s public schools and compared them to the total calories and fat from now purchasing low fat milk. As the researchers noted the kids “were served [emphasis added] an estimated 5,960 fewer calories and 619 fewer grams of fat in 2009 than they were in 2004,” and the difference between the two numbers was interpreted to mean that the children were now healthier.
There were many non-trivial problems behind these assumptions, but one of the most interesting ones was that in 60 percent of all milk purchases in the DOE’s new milk regime were comprised of sweetened 1 percent or fat-free chocolate milk. Both contain significantly more sugars than regular milk; in fact, for 1 percent chocolate milk, there is almost the same amount of sugar, gram for gram, as soda.
Now, the New York Times is reporting that some schools are banning chocolate milk because of its sugar content. But the paper failed to follow through on the results of doing so when schools have already removed whole milk from their menus – namely, the question of whether children would drink milk at all in school. Fat and sugar make food taste good; if you remove both from milk, you are not by default left with an incentive to drink unsweetened low fat milk; rather, you have created an incentive for children to drink something else entirely – and something that quite probably doesn’t have the nutrients that milk has. You might as well expect children to respond positively to unmeatened hamburgers.
But the underlying issue is not so much chocolate milk versus no chocolate milk, as the LA Times framed it in a brief face off between two nutritionists, it’s in assuming that whole milk is a driving force in childhood obesity, and is something that kids shouldn’t drink. Nowhere in the media coverage did reporters think of asking why children couldn’t drink whole milk instead of chocolate milk; it was as if that had ceased to be a choice. But then nowhere in the media coverage of the assault on whole milk in schools did journalists ask for evidence that removing it would really – as opposed to “likely” – improve health.