The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

School Nutrition Association Dances to Milk Industry Tune

August 12th, 2010 · 9 Comments · Posted in food news

Drink this chocolate milk or die!

Drink this chocolate milk or die!

The School Nutrition Association, representing thousands of school food service workers across the country, has embraced a “study” promoting chocolate and other sugar-enhanced milk that was paid for by the dairy industry, conducted by a firm that specializes in devising corporate marketing schemes, and which the dairy group refuses to release for close inspection.

The SNA has announced it plans to hold a “webinar” on the study Aug. 25 to examine findings from a sample of schools that purport to show that milk consumption dropped an average 35 percent when chocolate and other flavored milks were removed and students were offered only plain milk.

The study was commissioned by MilkPEP, a dairy industry group that operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and uses funds collected from members to promote milk. Perhaps best known for the catchy “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, the group has spent more than $1 billion to halt what has been a steady decline in U.S. milk consumption in recent decades.

MilkPEP, along with National Dairy and the National Dairy Council, are listed as “patrons” of the School Nutrition Association, meaning they pay at least $10,000 in annual dues to support SNA activities. A MilkPEP representative also sits on the SNA’s “Industry Advisory Board,” along  with representatives from corporate food giants such as Tyson, Sysco and General Mills.

On its website, the SNA says the free “webinar,” entitled, “Keep Flavored Milk from Dropping Out of School,” is being offered “in partnership with the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP),” and that participants will “learn how to share” the study’s findings. “Learn about free resources available to use with parents, school officials, and other interested parties to help show that student nutrition and food budgets are negatively impacted when flavored milk is removed from schools,” the SNA urges.

The School Nutrition Association figured prominently in recent Congressional hearings on the reauthorization of school meal programs, testifying that schools on average lose 35 cents on every lunch they serve.

The flavored milk “study” was first unveiled at the SNA’s annual conference in Dallas July 13. When I called MilkPEP here in Washington, D.C., to obtain a copy of the study, I was referred to the Chicago offices of Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm with 81 offices in 40 countries, according to its website. A representative there, Chris Bona, first asked me how I intended to use the study. After I provided him with my professional background and links to my reporting on the school food issue–including the debate over flavored milk–Bona declined to make the study available.

“I checked and since MilkPEP may decide to present or publish the study, at this time we’re only able to share the information I sent you on Friday,” Bona said, referring to a press release and a two-page colored flyer describing the study’s findings.

Because MilkPEP refuses to release the study for closer scrutiny, it is impossible to know whether its finding are at all scientifically valid. References cited in the study are mostly from the American Dietetic Association, another group heavily sponsored by the food industry.

Nutritionist and food politics author Marion Nestle dismissed the MilkPEP report.

“It’s well known in nutrition research that sponsored studies yield results that favor the sponsor’s interests,” Nestle said. “This study was sponsored by the Milk Processors who have a vested interest in making sure that milk sales increase. Without reading the actual study, I cannot comment on its methods, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that the investigators designed the study–consciously or unconsciously–to favor consumption of chocolate milk.

“Of course kids will choose chocolate milk,” Nestle continued, “or candy for that matter if given a choice. I know of plenty of examples of schools that have given up chocolate milk and do not see losses in sales once the kids get used to the idea that they can’t have it at school any more.”

Kate Adamick, a nationally recognized school food consultant who is an outspoken advocate of eliminating flavored milk from schools, both because of the hazards posed by added sugar in flavored milk and because it costs schools more to buy it, dismissed the study on the same grounds.

“What a ‘shock’ that the folks who have the most to gain financially by convincing everyone that kids need to drink flavored milk came up with a study that says kids need to drink flavored milk,” Adamick said.

Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady” who has eliminated flavored milk from two prominent school districts–Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Co.–has called flavored milk “soda in drag.” Chocolate milk, for instance, usually contains around 26 grams of sugar–including the lactose that occurs naturally–the equivalent of 6.5 teaspoons, or about the same, ounce-for-ounce, as Classic Coke. Strawberry milk contains nearly as much sugar as Mountain Dew.

“The argument is like this: If our kids don’t like apples–but do like apple pie–then let’s just feed them apple pie in school,” Cooper said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” Cooper said she believes children can get enough calcium and Vitamin D from sources other than milk and that flavored milk should only be served as a treat at home.

The disease primarily associated with insufficient Vitamin D–rickets–is so rare as to be practically unheard of, except in some infants that breast feed and do not receive Vitamin D supplements. Still, many parents worry about children not getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. The dairy industry claims the U.S. is suffering a “calcium crisis.” And as more school districts take up the question of whether to remove flavored milk, the issue is being hotly debated. School officials in the District of Columbia recently decided without fanfare to discontinue serving flavored milk and sugary cereals, a move that has reverberated around the country.

Americans today consume only half as much milk per person as they did at the end of World War II. Milk has steadily lost ground to competing beverages, such as sodas. Flavored milk is one of the few bright spots in this otherwise dismal picture. More than half the flavored milk sold is sold to schools, and 70 percent of the milk kids drink at school is flavored.

The milk industry claims the situation would be even worse without advertising. MilkPEP is a commodity “check off” program authorized by Congress in 1990, under which processors pay a charge according to the amount of milk they produce. The group’s annual budget for 2006, for instance, was $107.8 million. Spending of the funds is overseen by the USDA.

“First and foremost, MilkPEP is the industry’s only marketing tool solely devoted to promoting fluid milk to America’s consumers nationally,” according to the group’s website. “It is essential in the industry’s fight to maintain share of stomach against strong national beverage brands such as Coke, Pepsi, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Gatorade, Poland Springs, Dasani and others.”

The flavored milk “study” being promoted by the School Nutrition Association was conducted by Prime Consultant Group, a major player in consumer analysis and sales strategies that lists among clients Coca-Cola, PepsiCo International, Kraft Foods/Nabisco, Sara Lee and Proctor & Gamble. Besides MilkPEP, Dairy Management Inc. and the International Dairy Association, it conducts business for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute.

Prime Consultant Group reported in the summary documents provided by Weber Shandwick that it examined children’s milk drinking habits in 58 schools in seven school districts across the country over a three month period in 2009. Not only did milk consumption drop an average 35 percent when flavored milk was removed, it said, but kids drank 37 percent less milk even a year or more after the move to plain milk had taken place.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Your comment may have to wait for approval to be published to ensure that we don't accidentally publish "spam". We thank you for understanding.


  • texmex

    Do you know that in Europe the milk lobby is so ‘unefficient’ that kids at school don’t drink milk. Think about it they only drink water, and guess what they get their calcium from other vogetarian sources….

    Calcium from dairy source is actually bad and depleetes the calcium reserves of people. Look at the osteoporose map and ask yourself why african countries have significant lower rate of osteoporosis over countries like USA or nordic countries? Where is milk mostly consummed?

    Sorry to sound offending but milk is for the little baby of the cow and not for humans.

  • Dana Woldow

    Wow – what a lot of misinformation coming from both sides in this debate! The milk industry’s claim that schools will lose money if chocolate milk is eliminated makes no sense at all. Students can choose a meal which qualifies for full government reimbursement even without milk, so long as they take at least 3 of the 5 required meal components (protein, fruit, veg, grain, and milk.) If 35% of the students no longer take milk when chocolate is not available, then that district will save 35% of their milk costs while still recouping the same meal reimbursement. The only potential loss is from sales of milk alone, but that’s not where the big money is.

    But the other side makes some outlandish claims too. Sure, kids can get calcium from sources other than milk, but the best non-dairy calcium sources are things like canned fish with bones and skin (like sardines or salmon), white beans, turnip greens, and kale – not exactly kid favorites, and children would have to be eating these foods in sufficient quantities three times a day, every day, to get the same amount of calcium as they get from milk. Or they could eat unsweetened yogurt (because the sweet stuff kids love has more sugar than chocolate milk; Trix yogurt weighs in with 28-34 grams per 8 oz., depending of the flavor), but again, they would have to eat it 3 times a day every day.

    And chocolate milk does not necessarily cost schools more than white – in our school district, it costs slightly less.

    Regarding vitamin D deficiency, consider the following from August 2009:
    “A whopping 70 percent of American kids aren’t getting enough vitamin D, and such youngsters tend to have higher blood pressure and lower levels of good cholesterol than their peers, according to two new studies published this week in the journal Pediatrics. Low vitamin D levels also may increase a child’s risk of developing heart disease later in life, experts say.
    “Children with low levels of vitamin D were more likely to have high blood pressure and lower levels of high-density lipoprotein, also known as good cholesterol — two factors that are considered major risk factors for heart disease later in life
    “Children with low vitamin-D levels also had higher levels of parathyroid hormone than their counterparts with adequate vitamin D in their blood. Parathyroid hormone is a measure of bone health. When levels are high, it suggests that bones need more calcium to grow.”

    And as for the claim that chocolate milk is just “soda in drag” – really? Soda contains no nutrients whatsoever except for its calories – virtually the very definition of “empty calories.” An 8 oz serving of milk (even chocolate milk) provides 30% of the daily value (DV) for calcium, 25% of the DV for Vitamin D, 16% DV for protein, 11%DV for potassium, 10%DV for Vitamin A, 26% DV for Vitamin B2, 10% Vitamin B3, 22% Vitamin B12, and 25% DV for phosphorus, making milk one of the most nutrient-dense foods, the very opposite of a “junk food” like soda.

    My point is that this issue is not nearly as black or white as supporters on either side would have us believe; there are valid arguments to be made for eliminating flavored milk from school lunches and for continuing to offer that choice. All of the sound bites just confuse things. Wouldn’t it be nice if the issue could be decided on the facts, rather than on whose rhetoric or “spin” gets the most media coverage?

  • Ed Bruske

    Thanks for these well-reasoned comments, Dana. The issue does seem to be more nuanced–and trickier–than either side makes out. But I also don’t take at face value medical claims of how deficient kids are in certain nutrients. Humans seem to have evolved just fine long before we had a ready source of dairy. And we haven’t even gotten to the point about milk drinking being a mostly northern European phenomenon. For most of the world’s population, kids stop drinking milk after infancy and thereafter are lactose intolerance. This definitely suggests an evolutionary bias against compulsive milk consumption, and I tend to put more trust in what my body tells me than what the corporate medical establishment and dairy industry tell me.

    The body needs Vitamin D to metabolize calcium, which helps explain why Vitamin D is added to commercial milk. However, manufacturers Vitamin D with exposure to the sun. (The infants with rickets referenced in the story were all black. Their skin color impedes sunlight absorption.) Kids don’t necessarily need it in their milk if they spend a little time outdoors. Lesson: turn off the TV.

    Cheese also is an excellent source of calcium. It’s more expensive than milk, but kids generally like certain kinds of cheese.

  • Dana Woldow

    Thanks Ed. Again, I am not coming down firmly on either side of this issue – not yet. There is just too much shrill rhetoric on both sides and too little consideration of the facts. Your point about lactose intolerance is a good one, and one which should be emphasized to the USDA, which creates the rules around the school meal programs, and mandates that milk must be offered with breakfast and lunch. Districts with high numbers of students from traditionally lactose-intolerant population (like Asians) can offer soy milk as an alternative, but the cost of individual cartons of soy milk is more than twice the cost of dairy milk, and eats up about half of the approx. $1 of the government reimbursement which is available to pay for food (the rest typically going to labor and overhead.) Another reason why “fixing school lunch” is going to require a heck of a lot more investment from our government than the paltry 6 cents proposed by Congress that we are all supposed to be so grateful for.

    I don’t quite follow the logic here about how, because the study referenced was funded by the dairy industry, the results must be suspect. According to the study, when chocolate milk was eliminated from cafeterias at 58 schools in seven school districts across the country, milk consumption went down by an average of 35%, and did not recover even after a year’s time. Unlike previous studies which monitored the amount of milk schools purchased, this study also measured “plate waste” – the amount of milk students threw away at the end of the meal. “Plate waste” is considered a more accurate measure of what students are actually consuming, as opposed to selecting, for their school meals. Whenever chocolate milk has been unavailable in schools in my district, milk volume has also been found to drop by about 35%.

    Although this study was commissioned by the dairy industry, it is hard to understand how they would benefit from this particular outcome. Milk is one of the required components of a school meal, and milks with two different fat contents must be offered; our district pays less for chocolate milk than for white, so the industry here does not benefit from the sale of chocolate milk over plain milk. What benefits the industry is the sale of MORE milk at school – more children choosing to include milk in their school meal – regardless of what kind of milk is chosen. It is to the industry’s advantage to determine accurately which circumstances contribute to more children choosing milk, not to try to mislead the public about what milk choices students prefer. In other words, if milk consumption stayed the same or increased when chocolate milk was eliminated, what would be the motivation for the dairy industry to try to conceal that outcome? Wouldn’t they immediately call for removal of chocolate milk in schools, if data showed that it would increase the number of children choosing milk in school?

  • barbara

    Very interesting post and follow-up comments. My opinion is the debate is a mote point. Milk served in schools is conventional and full of hormones. Such hormones are out of balance with children’s growing bodies. Hormone additions are in certain medicines, food (especially milk) , and water and has been traced to cancer. Skip the milk — unless it is organic — which I know is not going to happen with those big corporate guns deciding with the USDA how milk will be used in the schools.. — barbara

  • opportunity4all

    OH! I didn’t know all of this stuffs ha! At least now I know.. Thanks for this very informative posts and comments.

  • Anon

    Chris Bona doesn’t work there anymore. You might want to contact Pam Goodman. Good luck getting info on that report.

  • Diana

    hello – good post. I don’t advocate anybody drinking conventioal milk – actually any milk product bought in grocery store at all.
    Just wondering, I am also helping kids eat healthier and helping parents and I found your blog. But, it does not have enough recipes, etc on fresh fruits and veggies! your fruit smoothie contains yogurt and fruit juice! there are so many more healthier things that cooked starches, white flour, white sugar and cheeses.
    Green smoothie – 1/2 apple, 1 1/2 C water, 1/2 banana, small handful of frozen mango and a handful of spinach. That is very tasty and so much healthier! I gave it to a parent group last night and they loved it! Kids tried it to.

    I do have to say thanks for helping raise awareness of the bad food that is being served in the schools and that is out there in the supermarkets.

  • bryan

    the milk client is falling apart over at weber shandwick. probably only a matter of time before they are sending out an RFP. Pam Goodman is not doing a good job over there.