In Partnership with 74

An open letter to the LAUSD board: Returning flavored milk is an unhealthy step for students

Guest contributor | June 8, 2016

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

ChocolateMilkBy Brent Walmsley

When one considers that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past thirty years, taking steps to make sugary drinks more available to students represents the height of absurdity. Yet, after five years of implementing a policy in the best interest of student health, the LAUSD board is considering just that.

This potential change stems from a recent discussion amongst Los Angeles Unified School District board members who are reconsidering the current policy of no longer serving flavored milk in schools. To bring flavored milk back into our schools would be an undeniable step in the wrong direction. I implore the board to think long and hard before making a change that could have ruinous health impacts for the nearly 600,000 students in LAUSD.

In a story that can only happen in Los Angeles, LAUSD removed flavored milk after a stunt on the television show Food Revolution hosted by Jamie Oliver. He filled an entire school bus full of sugar to display how much sugar the students were consuming, much of which was coming from flavored milk. Shortly thereafter former Superintendent John Deasy announced that flavored milk would no longer be a part of school meals during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

While many may have strong opinions about the former superintendent, the body of research that outlines the health impacts of added sugar makes one thing crystal clear—Dr. Deasy acted in the best interests of students when making the decision to ban flavored milk from LAUSD school campuses.

There is much evidence to support this position. Notably, two recent studies out of the University of Southern California and Yale University show that sugary drinks cause impaired memory and cognitive function, and an inability to pay attention—all of which are important factors for improving and sustaining academic achievement. Furthermore, consuming sugary drinks has also been demonstrated to reduce satiety, and when children are feeling hungry, it becomes much more difficult for them to concentrate thereby further impairing their ability to learn.

Given this knowledge, placing flavored milk back in schools would be in direct opposition to any actions taken to help students to achieve greater academic success. And, when we consider a normal school day, we aren’t just talking about one serving. A child could have up to four servings, once at breakfast, once during nutrition, once during lunch, and once more during after-school programming. This amounts to a total of 88 grams of added sugar per day—3.5 times that amount the World Health Organization recommends.

But sugar’s impact doesn’t stop with cognitive function. Sugary drinks have a direct impact on health. Studies have shown that it weakens the immune system, is a leading cause of obesity (50 percent of all sugar consumed comes from beverages), and can lead directly to type 2 diabetes. While maintaining health is not a key role of the school system, a vital component to students doing well in school is having them present at school. A weakened immune system or a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes will likely result in students missing days of school. Knowing this, it seems unwise to bring back a product that is known to directly contribute to poor health outcomes for students.

Even knowing all of the above, however, many would argue that while flavored milk has some drawbacks, drinking milk has many health benefits, and children are more likely to drink milk if it is flavored. In fact, some flavored milk providers actually market their products to schools by claiming that it can be beneficial for building muscle after a rigorous workout, and by making a comparison between the amount of sugar in flavored milk versus soda. These arguments are shortsighted and don’t make much sense, however.

First, sugar has been shown to reduce the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Thus any health advantages of milk are actually negated once sugar is added. And, second, if the measure for health is just having less sugar that soda, then we can say just about anything is healthy. We must do better.

Schools are where our students learn, not only academic subjects, but how to navigate the world and how to take care of themselves. Schools must set the example for healthy habits, rather than actively creating opportunities for unhealthy habits. The board needs to show wisdom and leadership here. Diminishing the health and well-being of our students by bringing back flavored milk is not displaying either.

Brent Walmsley is a former LAUSD teacher and the founder of SugarWatch, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving community health and wellness through information about the impact of sugar on health, creating healthier opportunities for students and communities, and advocating for improved polices related to public health and nutrition.

Read Next