Chocolate milk's loss hard on some schools

Sunday July 17, 2011

If the town of Florida is any indication, flavored milk will not go quietly.

In an effort to fight rising childhood obesity, new school nutrition standards passed Wednesday by the state Public Health Council call for rigorous limitations on a range of junk foods that will begin to take effect in August 2012. Besides fried foods, the sale of less-obvious culprits like white bread and sweetened milk are also set to be banned.

When the Abbott Memorial School in Florida stopped serving chocolate milk this year, some parents were upset, according to Jonathan Lev, the superintendent of the North Berkshire School Union. At least one pair said that their son would only drink milk if it was flavored.

North Berkshire School Union, which includes elementary schools in Clarksburg, Florida and Savoy, has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the state. But it is not the only school district to struggle with the milk issue. While most of the new standards don't take effect until next year, officials decided to wait an additional year to ban sweetened milk so they could figure out how to get kids to drink milk without the extra sugar, The Boston Globe reported.

Betsy Halla, 49, a Pittsfield mother of six, was on board with most of the new standards. If there's no white bread in the cafeteria, then Halla said her kids will just have to eat wheat.

Halla's looking forward to seeing improvements on what her kids receive from the cafeteria, which she said only sometimes hits the mark.

"When they serve tator tots and fish sticks, you can't seriously call that a meal," Halla said. "That's right up there with calling ketchup a vegetable."

She wasn't as an enthusiastic about the ban on chocolate milk.

"I think that's a nice little treat to have with your meal," Halla said.

In Florida, Lev and cafeteria director Traci Luczynski, who had made the move to pull the chocolate milk off the shelf independent of pending state guidelines, stood by the decision, citing the drink's high caloric value.

"We're trying hard to improve nutritionally what we're offering kids," Lev said.

The school eventually struck a compromise to serve chocolate milk once a month.

According to data that were released last fall, 44 percent of the students who attend school in the North Berkshire School Union are either overweight or obese compared to 34 percent statewide. The district had the fourth-worst percentage of the 80 state school districts that were measured by the state Department of Public Health.

Lev said he was completely shocked when the numbers came out.

"It wakes you up a little bit. It makes you think, and be aware of it," Lev said. "And sometimes that's how things get changed."

The district underscored its poor ranking to try to win state grants to support health initiatives, but didn't succeed this year.

While waiting to apply again next year, the district is ramping up its farm-to-school program, Lev said, which includes gardens -- but also a unique take on recycling. Kids at the Florida school empty their uneaten scraps into a bucket, and each day a local farmer picks up the bucket and brings it back home -- to feed his pigs.

To reach Amanda Korman:
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