SMMUSD HDQTRS — Incensed parents clashed with school district staff Wednesday night in a showdown over whether or not to serve non-fat chocolate milk to kids in local schools.

The fight centered on the relative nutritional value of getting kids to drink milk versus the dangers of too much extra sugar in their diets, which parents fear contributes to obesity and resulting health risks.

In the last year, cafeterias across the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District served 440,861 cartons of milk. Of those, 77 percent were non-fat chocolate milk, according to district statistics.

The non-fat chocolate milk has two additional teaspoons of sugar than plain milk.

Staff, led by Food Services Director Orlando Griego and Nutrition Specialist Dona Richwine, presented studies and opinions of medical professionals and organizations that suggested that the benefits of kids drinking milk far outweighed the negatives of those two teaspoons of extra sugar in each carton.

A two-year study looking at seven school districts with 58 schools showed that when flavored milk was removed, kids drank up to 35 percent less milk in the first year than when they had the option to choose chocolate or strawberry milk, Richwine said.

Students didn’t get used to the loss of the flavored milk, either.

“After two years, there was no change,” she said. “They did not take the white milk.”

Rather than demonize the chocolate milk, Richwine suggested that the district continue with its current policy of making nutrient rich foods, like milk, more palatable to kids by offering versions with added sugar.

Harriet Fraser, a mother of two children in the district and the woman behind the original movement to ban flavored milk in the district, protested that the added sugar could add up to five pounds to a child’s weight in a year.

The responsible choice, she argued, was to ban flavored milk.

“There are 46 school districts that are doing this,” she said. “We need to join these pioneers.”

Fraser and other parents have collected over 700 signatures from parents and students opposing flavored milk in the district.

Morris Salem, a pediatric cardiologist, told board members that the sweetened milk was a stepping stone to bad habits that can lead to real health risks, particularly obesity.

“Obesity is what’s killing our children,” Salem said.

Presented with two opposing opinions, board members seemed flummoxed on how to proceed.

Although some, including Board President Jose Escarce and Maria Leon Vasquez, agreed that getting kids to drink milk outweighed the negative consequences of the extra sugar, others, Oscar de la Torre, favored an outright ban.

Board member Laurie Lieberman acknowledged the concerns, but pointed out that chocolate milk was not the only source of sugar in children’s diets.

“This group is concerned about sugar in schools and obesity, but flavored milk is not where the only empty calories are,” she said.

Rather than attack milk, Lieberman favored finding the lowest-sugar milk available and substituting that for the Driftwood Dairy brand that the district currently purchases.

The call across the seven board members seemed to be for more information to clarify what milk options were available for the schools, and whether the district would better serve its youth by getting them to drink more flavored milk, or less plain milk.

Board member Nimish Patel noted that the 46 districts that had so far abandoned flavored milk must have had a good reason for doing so, one that he did not feel staff had presented to the board members Wednesday.

“There is other data out there that they saw, that we’ve not been exposed to here today,” he said.

The item was up for discussion, and no formal action could be taken. The board did vote to schedule it for a decisive vote at the end of August.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said school board Vice Chair Ben Allen favored a bank of flavored milk. Allen is interested, but felt he did not have enough information at the time of the meeting to make a decision.

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