However schools answer these questions, protest inevitably follows. When Fairfax County and D.C. schools banned chocolate milk last year from elementary lunch lines, officials heard not just from parents and students. They also received letters and petitions from a slew of nutritionists and influential special interest groups.
Most accused the districts of acting rashly, robbing students of a tasty drink and the vitamins and minerals that fuel bone and muscle growth.
“We got 10 to 20 e-mails a day,” said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax. “It was a lot of pressure.”
This month — and partly because of that pressure — Fairfax officials announced that they would reintroduce chocolate milk in school cafeterias. The newer, low-fat version includes sucrose, which is made from sugar cane or beets, instead of high-fructose corn syrup, which some critics say is more heavily processed and, as a result, less healthy.
Such reformulations have satisfied some of chocolate milk’s critics. But most scientists and nutritionists, including those employed by local school districts, say that changing sweeteners makes little dietary difference if the total calorie content stays the same.
This is a view embraced by the Corn Refiners Association, which often finds itself on the losing side of such changes. “Why should school districts pay more for one sweetener when children’s bodies can’t tell the difference?” said Audrae Erickson, the group’s president.
Several other school districts in the Washington area are changing the formulations of their chocolate milk to switch sweeteners and lessen the amount of fat and sugar. But most are continuing to make it available to students. D.C. schools have resisted the push to restore chocolate milk to their cafeterias.
The stakes are high because more than 70 percent of the milk distributed in school cafeterias is flavored, according to the Milk Processor Education Program, an industry group. Fairfax alone serves 62,000 gallons of chocolate milk a year. And the formulations used in many cafeterias across the country have more calories, ounce for ounce, than Coke.
Such statistics have drawn the attention of those lobbying for healthier school lunches at a time of rising obesity among children. Parents in many districts have been vocal.
“If we want to fix childhood obesity, chocolate milk is just one of the things we need to get rid of,” said Jeff Anderson, a parent of three students at Wolftrap Elementary in Vienna and a member of Real Food for Kids, a Fairfax area advocacy group. “It’s a treat, not something you have every day with lunch.”