By: Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Child nutrition programs play an important role in improving nutrition security, supporting children’s health and their ability to learn. Nutrition security goes beyond people having enough to eat and ensures that the foods people can access provide a range of essential nutrients. Research suggests that eating nutrient-dense foods that are readily available in school meal programs—like fruits, vegetables and dairy products—is connected with improved academic and health outcomes among children and adolescents.1
Milk is a required and vital part of school meals because it is nutrient-dense, affordable, easy to consume and highly palatable, helping children and adolescents meet their daily nutrient needs. However, many students are not consuming the recommended number of daily servings of dairy. Continuing to offer choices and reduce barriers to access while also considering diet quality helps encourage consumption of milk and dairy foods in child nutrition programs.
Offering flavored milk in school and home settings can increase overall milk consumption among children and adolescents, helping meet intake recommendations.2 Here are a few examples of research that reinforce the nutritional contributions of flavored milk in children’s eating patterns and the overall positive impact on diet quality:
The California dairy community has been proactive in reformulating flavored milk in schools over the years to significantly reduce added sugars in children’s diets while still providing a nutrient-dense beverage that is enjoyable. Flavored milk offered in California schools has been reformulated to reduce added sugars to within 7 to 9 grams, per reports from California school milk processors. Overall, flavored milk contributes only 4% of total added sugars in children’s diets5 but provides 13 essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and potassium—nutrients that are underconsumed by most school-aged children.
Flavored milk is a popular choice in schools and, when served as a part of school meal programs, reduces the amount of milk waste.6 There are several examples of schools that have seen a reduction in milk consumption and an increase in food waste when flavored milk is removed as an option.
“It is a common misconception among parents and wellness partners that the chocolate milk served in school meal programs is the same product sold in grocery stores with a high sugar content. Most don’t know that years ago California’s dairy processors have worked hard to reformulate their chocolate milk to have only 1-2 teaspoons of added sugar. This small amount of added sugar fits within nutritional guidelines for students and encourages consumption of a nutrient dense food when they otherwise might not get a serving of milk at home if they are nutrition insecure. My son eats school lunch and I love that he takes a chocolate milk at lunchtime because it gives him an additional dairy serving during his day when he would most likely take juice if chocolate milk wasn’t an option.” – Heather Berkoben, Dairy Council of CA Community Nutrition Adviser and Parent
Offering flavored milk alongside other dairy foods contributes to nutrition security by providing nutrient-rich choices that are accessible, affordable, easy to consume and appealing to children. It is an important step to ensure nutritious foods fill students’ stomachs instead of trash cans, a win-win for both health and the planet.
Want to learn or do more? Read our comments to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service regarding Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patterns Consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. You can also submit your own public comments to ensure students have access to nutritious dairy foods in school meals. Go to https://www.regulations.gov and follow the online instructions for submitting comments now through May 10, 2023.
Join us in our efforts to achieve nutrition security and make healthy, wholesome foods accessible to all by engaging in the Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative. Visit HealthyEating.org/Join to learn more.
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden, MPH, RDN
Kristal Shelden is Dairy Council of CA’s advocacy manager, driving the organization’s thought leadership strategies and communications.
As rates of food insecurity continue rise, school meals are more important than ever.
School meals have always been a critical access point for the nutritious foods that children need to grow and learn.