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The Slow Cook

Wake Up, Parents! Or Let Kids Run the Cafeteria

Suddenly a debate over chocolate milk in school is heating up in the pages of The Washington Post. Or should I say our hometown paper has finally noticed there’s a food revolution going on in D.C. school cafeterias now that a first-grader has polled his fellow students and found–shock!–they are not drinking as much milk as some people think they ought to since chocolate and strawberry milk were taken off the menu a year ago.

Post columnist Mike DeBonis sounds downright sympathetic to the plight of these elementary schoolers in affluent Chevy Chase, 58 percent of whom (according to a 7-year-old’s poll of about 100 school mates) are not drinking milk. But here’s the good news: Apparently, 42 percent of the kids are drinking milk, and that’s a lot more than are eating the green beans. 

Notice, this dispute centers on something kids love–sugary milk. Nobody is conducting any surveys to see how many kids are shunning the vegetables or whole grains the USDA says kids need more of to avoid becoming obese. Having spent the last year and a half monitoring what kids eat in my daughter’s elementary school here in the District, I’m here to deliver some bad news: obscene quantities of vegetables and whole grains are being thrown in the trash every day. In fact, I recently visited an elementary school cafeteria on Capitol Hill on a day green beans were on the menu. I did not see a single child in the lunch room eating them. But they were all eating the hamburger. (Quite a few were drinking plain milk.)

There is no real secret to all of this. If we allowed kids to write the school menu, it would follow approximately these lines: Chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, pizza, hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, french fries, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, chocolate milk. Those are all things kids love.

 Now, what are the adults serving instead? Bone-in chicken, whole grain buns, green beans, whole grain pasta, sauteed squash, roasted sweet potatoes, Caesar salad, bone-in chicken, plain milk. Which would you choose as the healthier menu? Would it surprise you to learn that the kids don’t eat it? Why do you think that is? But note, also, there are no adults in the cafeteria talking to the kids about the food. Nobody is marketing the new menu to the children who are supposed to eat it. In other words, the adults really aren’t following through to make this food revolution a success.

The real issue is not the sugar in chocolate milk. We already know kids love sugar. Look at the article I posted yesterday on the sodas and other sugary foods elementary school children bring to school from home. The problem is what chocolate milk stands for. More than any other item on the school menu, chocolate milk embodies our failure to pay attention to the way kids are eating, our surrender to a toxic food culture that embraces industrially processed convenience foods because they are easy shortcuts.

We teach children to expect sugar in their food, then we’re surprised we have an obesity epidemic?

Yes, chocolate milk pretty much sums up our failure as adults to engage children in the more difficult act of eating thoughtfully, our willingness too often to just let kids eat what they want. Getting children to eat more green beans and less candy is hard work. But nobody said it would be easy.           More than any other item on the school menu, chocolate milk embodies our failure to pay attention to the way kids are eating, our surrender to a toxic food culture that embraces industrially processed convenience foods because they are easy shortcuts.

It’s high time we had this discussion. Hooray for first-graders researching the food question. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to bring back chocolate milk. It means parents (and maybe the Washington Post, too) need to pay more attention. If we want kids to drink more milk–and not everyone thinks that’s necessary–then let’s get kids to like plain milk.

Heck, while we’re at it, we could pony up some more money for electric milk dispensers in the schools–cool machines like the ones I’ve seen in use in Berkeley and Boulder and other progressive school districts–so kids can help themselves to as much cold, delicious, organic plain milk as they like.

There you go, Council Chairman Brown. Why not do a little research into how we might fund milk dispensers in D.C. schools so kids don’t have to drink the stuff in those cheap little cartons. I’m sure they would love pouring their own milk. And maybe if you offered kids really good plain milk, they would drink more of it. But that’s not going to happen as long as chocolate milk is an option.

Yes, getting kids to eat more healthfully means getting more involved–with our time and with our wallets. But as my wife likes to say, this is a process, not an event. This revolution is just beginning, and there’s lots more work ahead. Think about that before you try to undo the progress that’s already been made.

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Ed Bruske

Ed Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter, now tends his “urban farm” about a mile from the White House in the District of Columbia. He was a co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners and lectures on composting, kitchen gardening, food preservation, and other related topics. He sits on the advisory board of the D.C. Farm to School Network and contributes to food policy blogs such as Grist and La Vida Locavore, as well as the gardening blog Garden Rant. He is a contributing editor for the food access blog, DC Food for All.

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