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Editorial: Don’t bribe kids with sugar to persuade them to drink more milk

A young chocolate milk drinker.
A young chocolate milk drinker.
(Los Angeles Times)

If students in local public schools refused to quench their thirst with water, would the schools offer them soda instead? Of course not. And if they won’t drink milk, the answer shouldn’t be to add sugar, chocolate or artificial strawberry flavoring and coloring to it.

L.A. Unified schools are in a tough position. The only drink they are allowed to offer students that meets federal school-lunch rules for high-nutrition foods is milk. Under federal rules, that milk can be sweetened and flavored. But under a separate L.A. Unified rule, sugar-sweetened drinks are banned — including flavored milk. So in effect, the only drink schools can provide to students in their school lunches is plain milk.

And the students are having none of it — or at least, very little of it. They want something to drink with lunch, but after a few sips, the cartons of plain milk end up filling the wastebaskets at schools. Food waste on this scale is terrible for the environment — the methane emitted by cows is a significant contributor to climate change — and for the feeding of the planet as well. L.A. Unified would like to give the students water, which is what it says the students want. And there’s nothing wrong with that except that the district wants to get the same nutrition credit — which translates into subsidies — for serving water as milk, and that wouldn’t be right. Milk isn’t just a thirst quencher; it’s a high-nutrition food.

For now, the L.A. Unified school board has decided to loosen up on flavored milk, with an experiment in 21 schools. The idea is to see whether offering the sweetened milk will increase students’ overall milk consumption. Nicer displays of plain milk and education about its health benefits will also be tried.

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Trying out new ideas is fine, but this experiment is heading in a bad direction. Flavored milk adds about two extra teaspoons of sugar to milk, calories with no nutritional value. Excess sugar consumption contributes to the nation’s obesity problem and is linked to heart disease and metabolic problems. And it sends a message that students should expect foods to have heightened sweetness, an expectation that they’ll carry outside school as well.

Water is a great drink, but the district shouldn’t get credit for providing a high-nutrient ingredient to lunch by handing out bottled water (which is also, by the way, terrible for the environment). Instead, it should make sure that every cafeteria has enough water fountains, encourage students to use them and suggest that they take milk — plain milk — only if that’s what they actually want to drink with lunch.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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