SMMUSD HDQTRS — The Board of Education voted against an outright ban on flavored milk Wednesday, instead opting for a more nuanced approach that allows parents to choose whether or not their children can drink the sugar-added beverage on campus.

The decision came after a contentious three-hour hearing packed with speakers of varying academic pedigree on both sides of the issue.

It followed closely in line with the staff recommendation, put forward by Chief Financial Officer Jan Maez and Director of Food Service Orlando Griego, which also promised “a comprehensive review” of food and drink options throughout the district, beginning with a la carte items.

The matter emerged in the July 20 board meeting when a group of parents, led by Harriet Fraser, produced a petition signed by 700 people in favor of removing flavored milk from local schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District had already banned the drink, after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver castigated the district for selling it on campuses.

By Wednesday’s meeting, that petition had 1,000 signatures.

Those for a total ban told board members that the non-fat chocolate milk sold on Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District campuses is harmful to children’s health, contributing not only two teaspoons of added sugar, but also extra sodium.

“If our children drink the three recommended dairy servings in the form of chocolate milk exclusively, the resulting 24 grams of added liquid sugar a day exceeds by 30 percent the amount that the (American) Heart Association considers defensible for the entire day,” said William McCarthy, a nutrition researcher at the UCLA School of Public Health and former chair of the district’s Health and Safety Advisory Committee.

Proponents of the chocolate beverage argued that the nutritional benefits of milk far outweigh the negatives of a few extra grams of sugar when high-quality protein, vitamins and calcium are taken into account.

Young girls, in particular, need to accrue as much calcium as possible to prevent diseases like osteoporosis and osteopenia, which describe conditions where bones become brittle because they don’t have enough calcium, parents said.

“It’s critically important for (my daughter) and all girls since the level of calcium consumption is critically linked to bone development,” said parent Lisa Balfous. “Many children who qualify … simply will not drink the unflavored milk if that is the only offering.”

Staff cited one study at the July 20 meeting that looked not only at the amount of milk taken by students at lunch, but also the amount thrown away.

The two-year study looked at seven school districts for two years, and showed that kids drank up to 35 percent less milk in the first year than when they had the option to choose either chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk.

The National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Health and others have all published research indicating that although the added sugar isn’t good for children, if it gets kids to consume more nutrient-rich foods it’s OK.

“Every organization that has weighed in on this, every credible organization with a mission to synthesize research and create policy recommendations has weighed in on this issue on the side of flavored milk,” said Board President Jose Escarce.

Escarce also pointed out that those who would be most impacted by the loss of milk in their diets would be low-income students who participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program.

For some of those students, he said, that might be the only serving of milk they get in a day.

He and other speakers, including Webster Elementary School parent Soniya Perl, said the school district should target other foods that add as much or more sugar to children’s diets without the benefits of milk.

“There is licorice in schools, and rewards given that are of minimal nutritional value,” Perl said. “Chocolate milk, on the other hand, is not considered to have minimal value.”

Board members Nimish Patel and Ralph Mechur, who were both for the ban when it was previously discussed at the July 20 meeting, remained steadfast in their position that removing the option would eventually force kids to make the right choice.

They were both willing to find middle ground, however.

“Let’s not make this a black and white issue,” Patel said. “Let’s find a solution tonight. Let’s make that solution tonight. We don’t have to vote yes or no, we can make a modified proposal that we can vote on that will benefit our children.”

Together, they agreed on a motion that would give parents discretion over their children’s habits, as well as include an educational component teaching kids the ill effects of excess sugar in their diet and a review of other foods in the district.

That spirit of compromise hit an uncompromising hurdle, however, over whether or not parents should be asked to give their permission for children to buy the flavored milk or should be asked specifically to opt out.

“I have a hard time supporting this,” Patel said. “Everything else we do in our schools is an opt-in. We need them to drink plain white milk.”

The end vote passed 5-2, with Patel and Mechur the two no votes.

Escarce congratulated the parents who brought the issue forward for their work and advocacy.

“It made a huge difference,” Escarce said. “It set a course in revising our menu, and begun a campaign to give more importance to white milk while students who are the most vulnerable will not reduce their vitamin D.”

Opponents were disappointed by the outcome, but were prepared to push forward for the wider discussion of district food items promised by the board.

“We’re obviously disappointed about the result, but felt we got the issue on the map,” Fraser said. “There’s so much more that needs to be done. We feel we must be optimistic going forward, and that significant changes can be made.”

In the mean time, SMMUSD could see a change in its chocolate milk as early as January.

Driftwood Dairy, which sells the district milk, will be reducing the amount of sugar in the milk by three grams from 20 to 17.

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