At a confirmation hearing for Schools Chancellor Kaya K. Henderson last week, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) closed his questioning with a rather curious line of inquiry: chocolate milk.
Brown wanted to know if Henderson was willing to revisit the question of whether to allow flavored milk back into school cafeterias. About a year ago, the school system announced it was banning sweetened versions of moo juice, along with certain sugary breakfast cereals, in a bid to improve childhood nutrition.
Brown referred, somewhat obliquely, to a “first-grader” who attended of his youth hearings and presented a study showing that his classmates wanted chocolate milk back. Henderson, in response, said she was “willing to reopen the conversation about chocolate milk.”
That exchange raised hackles among those who advocated removing chocolate milk in the first place. Ed Bruske, a former Post reporter who has done outstanding work chronicling the sorry state of food service in the D.C. Public Schools, lit into Brown in a blog post yesterday, ridiculing his reliance on a first-grader’s research.
”More likely,” Bruske wrote, “Brown was tagged by the long arm of the dairy industry, which relentlessly pursues efforts to keep flavored milk in schools to offset decades of decline in sales of plain milk.”
Today I heard from Chris Murphy, father of seven-year-old Aidan Kohn Murphy — the first-grader in question, who happens to attend Lafayette Elementary in Chevy Chase and testified at the June 11 youth hearing.
”I can tell you that my son is the person who seems to have brought this issue to Brown’s attention, and I can promise you that he is not a dairy lobbyist,” Murphy wrote. (He also confirmed that neither he nor any member of his family has ties to the “long arm of the daily industry.”)
It’s not hard to see why Brown might have taken notice of the younger Murphy’s testimony (posted below). It makes a darned good case that chocolate milk prohibition might not be the best course of action, supporting its claims through a survey of his schoolmates and an interview with his own pediatrician.
”You were trying to do a good thing when you took chocolate milk away,” he said. “But it isn’t working.”
As my Post colleague Kevin Sieff explored in some detail earlier this year, the chocolate milk question is not isolated to the District, and there is far from any sort of expert consensus on the matter.
The permissivists hold that chocolate milk isn’t nutritionally ideal, but it is milk, and sugary milk is better than other equally sugary beverages that don’t have the protein, vitamins and calcium milk does.
The prohibitionists hold that kids don’t need any added sugar, and that if they don’t drink plain milk, they can get calcium and other nutrients from other sources. If kids substitute fruit juice, they argue, the “natural sugars” therein are preferable to the corn syrup or cane sugar in flavored milk.
At DCPS, incidentally, its goal is “give students the gift of a healthy palate by giving them access to whole, natural, and (when available) seasonal foods,” said Paula E. Reichel of the system’s food service department in a recent statement to my colleague Bill Turque. “We’d like to teach students that sugar doesn’t need to be added to a natural food to make it ‘taste good.’”
A noble goal to be sure. But nobility in other jurisdictions has not always been met with cheers and adulation. The Fairfax County public schools banned chocolate milk, only to reverse the decision earlier this year and introduce a version with cane or beet sugar, rather than high fructose corn syrup. On the flip side, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s largest — voted this week to ban flavored milk.
Regardless of how DCPS proceeds, the debate will remain pointed.
”To simply dismiss my son’s position by ridiculing the notion that kids should have a reasonable say in what they eat and drink is patronizing and insulting,” the elder Murphy wrote to me, adding that the most troubling finding of his son’s survey wasn’t that kids wanted chocolate milk, it was that 58 percent of kids surveyed weren’t drinking any milk at school, period.
Bruske retorts on his blog: “Schools are not free choice zones. Last we checked, adults — not children — were still responsible for making important policy decisions. ... Local elected leaders are expected to act like grownups and look out for the welfare of minors, not pander to six-year-olds and the dairy lobby.”
I can say this much: There is no overt evidence that Brown was doing the bidding of dairy lobbyists in questioning Henderson about chocolate milk. (Henderson did say that food industry representatives had contacted her after the milk ban was announced.) There is evidence that Brown was quite earnestly responding to the honest petition of a very young constituent.
”I’m going to look into this chocolate milk thing,” Brown told Aidan on June 11. “We want to have healthy foods ... but let’s not go overboard if chocolate milk is something that is better than drinking other types of juices that has more sugar in it.”
Here is Aidan’s testimony: