Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The trend toward healthier foods in schools and the chocolate milk debate May 7, 2011

SHOULD PUBLIC SCHOOLS offer chocolate milk with school lunches?

That’s an issue being discussed right now in the Fergus Falls Public School system, according to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal.

The head of the Parent Teacher Organization appeared before the school board recently requesting that chocolate milk no longer be offered to students, except on Fridays as a “special treat.” She’s concerned about the sugar in chocolate milk and about serving healthier food. You can read the entire story by clicking here.

Based on the volume of responses to the Journal article, I quickly concluded that chocolate milk in school is certainly a hot button topic.

Opinions range from “let the kids have their chocolate milk because then at least they are drinking milk” to school lunches need an overhaul to this is a political issue.

Personally, I’ll pick white milk over chocolate any day. I grew up on a dairy farm, meaning I can’t really give an unbiased opinion here. Cows don’t produce chocolate milk. To my taste buds, chocolate milk compares to chugging chocolate syrup and I prefer my chocolate syrup on ice cream.

Here’s my take on banning chocolate milk from school lunchrooms:  Kids will eventually learn to drink white milk if they don’t have the chocolate option.

I think the PTO president erred with her compromise offer to allow chocolate milk as a “special treat” on Fridays. That would send a mixed message to students. Labeling a food as a “treat” only makes it more appealing.

This chocolate milk discussion reminds me of a controversy over soda pop vending machines in schools several years ago. I don’t recall the details, but it was a point of much debate in my community of Faribault. I don’t know how the issue was eventually resolved. And, honestly, because my kids are big milk, and not big soda, drinkers, I really did not pay that much attention to the issue. I should have.

Whether milk or soda is at the center of discussion, it’s good that parents, food service employees, school administrators and others are finally taking a good look at school lunches and working toward serving healthier foods and beverages to our kids.

In Fergus Falls, a Wellness Committee is tackling the topic of improving school lunches. Click here and here for the May school lunch menus in Fergus Falls. You’ll find main menu items like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, corn dogs and super nachos along with baked (not fried) fries, sunflower nuts, fresh fruit and fresh veggies. I can see progress in that list, but still some of those food choices don’t seem all that healthy to me.

And just to be clear here, I’m neither a food purist nor a perfect parent. I’ve served chicken nuggets to my family and I would label my 17-year-old son, my youngest, as a “picky eater.” It’s not that I haven’t tried to get him to eat his fruits and vegetables…

Fergus Falls certainly isn’t alone in moving toward healthier school lunches that feature fewer processed foods and more fresh veggies and fruit.

Throughout Minnesota, students, staff and volunteers are planting gardens, a win-win way to engage and teach students about healthier eating. The gardens will also provide fresh vegetables for school lunchrooms. The Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) is helping lead the way. You can click here to see what’s happening in your county through SHIP.

In my county, Rice, for example, a “Growing Healthy Foods” workshop is slated for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, in the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Master gardeners will present information about gardening in this program funded through a SHIP grant.

While individuals and students are planting gardens, Minnesota schools are also working with local growers to incorporate fresh produce into school lunches.

Check out the Minnesota Farm to School Program to see how some schools are embracing the trend toward eating local. It’s inspiring to read about apple orchards and tomatoes and school gardens and efforts to educate and reconnect students to the land.

I expect, though, that despite efforts to improve the quality of food in school lunchrooms, cost will determine whether healthy, permanent changes can be made. School districts don’t exactly have extra money in their budgets. And parents, in a time of already stretched family finances, won’t appreciate/can’t afford hikes in school lunch prices.

Getting kids to change their eating habits presents a major challenge also.

What’s your opinion on the current trend toward serving healthier foods in schools? Are changes needed? Will kids embrace such changes? Can school districts afford to offer healthier foods (which will likely cost more to buy and to prepare)? Will parents pay higher prices for school lunches?

And, finally, how do you feel about pulling chocolate milk from school lunchrooms?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling