Students in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district have grown accustomed to whole wheat pasta and lunchtime salad bars, with vegetables delivered fresh every day from a farmers market.
But to the chagrin of some healthful food advocates and parents, chocolate milk will continue to be served too. The school board debated late into the night Wednesday before deciding to keep it on the menu. But parents can request that their children not receive chocolate milk.
Like many districts across the country, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District had joined the debate about whether the calcium that is valuable for growing children is worth the trade-off of sugar and calories that come with the flavored milk.
The small boardroom at district headquarters was packed; more than a dozen people spoke on both sides of the issue. Many were parents who supported a ban and waved their hands — a kind of silent applause — each time someone spoke in favor of dropping chocolate milk. Another contingent countered that chocolate milk wasn’t the worst offender and that it does have nutritional value.
One mother, arguing against the ban, worried that students from underprivileged backgrounds who get most of their nutrition from school meals needed to be taken into account. “This room is not filled with a representation of all the parents in our district,” said Lori Whitesell, a mother of two boys in middle school.
The district serves about 11,500 students, with nearly a third qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals, according to district figures.
School nutrition officials argued that nixing chocolate milk is too big of a risk because it might result in a drop in milk consumption.
José J. Escarce, the board president and a professor of medicine at UCLA, said several hundred students might not drink milk if chocolate is eliminated.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would take that chance,” he said. “There is no evidence that this is related to obesity, and this is a really important nutrient to our students — it really is.”
The district faced push-back from a vocal group of parents who said the flavored milk, with its added sugar, had to go. They said students can adjust to the taste of plain milk, and it’s an important step in countering the spread of obesity.
Parents and activists had circulated a petition seeking the ban and gathered 1,000 signatures.
Orlando Griego, director of the schools’ food and nutrition services, said district officials had examined the research on both sides of the issue. They determined, based on what they know about their students, that the possibility of children not drinking white milk was too big of a gamble.
The action in Santa Monica follows moves nationwide to remove flavored milks from schools. In June, the Los Angeles Unified School District eliminated flavored milk from its cafeterias.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Mary MacVean contributed to this report.