What role did a celebrity chef play in changing the policy on flavored milk in Los Angeles public schools?
Board of education officials aren't giving Jamie Oliver all the credit. But the British food crusader had the school district in his crosshairs last year when he dramatically lobbied to change the L.A. school lunch program to provide healthier options -- all caught on camera in the second season of his ABC reality television show, "Food Revolution."
Either way, the outcome is clear: if you're a Los Angeles public school student who likes some chocolate or strawberry flavoring added to your milk, you may be in for some disappointment.
"Jamie Oliver provided the opportunity to focus on an area that could contribute to ongoing district initiatives, which included the recommendation for the removal of flavored milk with added sugars," said a spokesperson for the school district.
But she noted that LAUSD is already a recognized leader in the effort to promote healthy foods and lifestyles to combat health issues related to obesity.
"Our goal, in tandem with Jamie Oliver, is to continue to serve healthy and nutritious meals."
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District decided, in a 5-2 vote, that L.A. public schools will no longer offer flavored milks as part of an effort to curb childhood obesity.
"Those excess calories are not needed and, when coupled with insufficient exercise, increases risk for students," said LAUSD food services director Dennis Binkle. "These include the fat-free chocolate milk and fat-free strawberry milk."
Matthew Sharp, senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates, has worked for years on creating healthier school food options. He hopes that students will learn to eat and drink healthily, cutting out the junk.
"We have worked for years to try and persuade schools to offer more water and more milk," said Sharp. "Many of these students will benefit from learning good nutritional habits in school."
The district -- the second-largest in the country -- joins several others, including Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder Valley, Colo., that have also banned the sugary milks.
"Schools are entrusted with providing a safe nurturing -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically -- environment for children when parents are not present," said Martin Binks, clinical director and CEO of Binks Behavior Health in Durham, N.C. "Any effort to reduce consumption of otherwise healthy foods that have artificially enhanced caloric density, [including] added sugar milk, added sugar fruit juice, deep-fried potatoes or other foods, should be supported."
While the Board of Education does not normally vote on specific school lunch menu items, it does decide on large contracts. The board decided on a five-year contract that will continue to offer low- and no-fat milks. Officials added soy milk and Lactaid options, but gave strawberry and chocolate milks the heave-ho.
The decision didn't stop at milk products. The district also vowed to offer more vegetarian options and to phase out fried and breaded items such as corn dogs and chicken nuggets.
In 2002, officials removed soda from the drink options, and Binkle said only 100 percent juice is offered at breakfast.
"We are making sure the meals served are of the highest nutrients possible, making sure serving sizes are appropriate and encouraging exercise," said Binkle.
Sports drinks and flavored milk drinks will still be available in vending machines, but Sharp said he hopes only water and milk will be available in the L.A. school system some day. And he hopes that other districts will follow suit.
"Hopefully, it will all be phased out with time," said Sharp.
But not all experts agreed that flavored milk should be out. Dr. George Blackburn, the S. Daniel Abraham Chair in nutrition medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, cited a 2005 New York Department of Education study that found removing whole milk and replacing it with low-fat or fat-free chocolate milk served an estimated 6,000 fewer calories and 619 fewer grams of fat per year.
"Dairy is one of the healthy food groups," said Blackburn. "We need flavored low-fat dairy to meet the recommended serving of dairy in school lunch and daily intake."
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, disagreed. He applauded the school's step in the right direction, while noting that schools still have a long way to go.
About one in three American children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1980, obesity prevalence in people ages 2 to 19 has nearly tripled.
While some defenders of chocolate milk have argued that sugary milk is better than no milk at all, experts said the sugary versions shouldn't be an option.
"The more sugar we consume, the more we tend to want," said Katz. "If even milk has added sugar, what doesn't? Part of getting everyone to better eating is getting everyone familiar with more wholesome, less-processed foods. Milk closer to nature is a better choice than milk with added sugar and colorings and flavorings."
Dr. Jana Klauer, a nutrition and metabolism expert in New York, agreed, adding that flavored milks not only increase calories, but also expectations.
"Adding flavorings and sugar to milk offers no nutritional benefit," said Klauer. "The harm of the sweetened dairy products, besides the added calories, is that the palate changes so that the drive for sweetness increases."
Because children spend so much time in school, experts agreed that promoting healthy eating habits in school could easily spread to other aspects of a child's life.
"Every eating occasion is an opportunity to promote health or oppose it," said Katz. "If schools take a lead role in promoting health, there will still be much work to do outside of schools, but school then become an important part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem. "