Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
It's a challenge that parents, grandparents and child care providers are all too familiar with:
In a world chock full of unhealthy but tasty processed foods, how do you get a notoriously picky group of diners — kids — to choose vegetables, fruit and other more nutritious alternatives?
This common dilemma has even inspired books. In "Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids' Favorite Meals," author and frustrated mother Missy Chase Lapine outlines how to "hide" vegetables by pureeing them and adding them to what's headed to the family table.
So when kids seek and enjoy a healthier option without prodding, the smart choice is to run with it, not mess with it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should heed that advice as it contemplates a rule that would make a beverage beloved by kids — chocolate milk — unavailable in school cafeterias to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. If the rule is finalized, it could go into effect in the 2025-26 academic year.
Such a move could backfire, with kids potentially forgoing plain milk and choosing a different beverage with similar or greater sugar levels but without the milk's nutritional firepower. Juice, or pop and energy drinks brought into the school from elsewhere, are likely alternatives. But they can't match milk's essential nutrients — calcium, protein, potassium and vitamin D.
And, yes, students could choose water, the healthiest option of all, but let's be realistic. People of all ages often want more flavorful options. Students are no exception.
Large percentages of school-aged students already fail to meet recommended levels of dairy consumption, according to a recent letter signed by two dairy-state senators, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Joni Ernst of Iowa. The two object to the USDA's move, noting that it could exacerbate the existing dairy dietary deficiency.
"We have significant concerns with this proposal and the negative impacts it will have on our children's health," the two senators wrote. Smith is a Democrat. Ernst is a Republican.
The USDA wields broad authority on this issue because it administers the nation's school meal programs. On an average school day, "29.6 million children, or about half the student population, ate a school lunch and 14.8 million children ate a school breakfast," according to a 2021 study published in Nutrients, a peer-reviewed journal.
Agency oversight responsibilities include ensuring that what's served up in school cafeterias is both tasty and nutritious. The agency's proposed flavored milk restrictions reflect growing concerns about sugar consumption as well as dietary guidelines recommending that added sugars not exceed 10% of total calories.
The 2021 Nutrients study found that 92% of schools exceeded this limit for breakfast and 69% exceeded it for lunches. It also fingered a culprit: "The leading source of added sugars in school meals (both breakfasts and lunches) was flavored skim milk."
The proposed USDA restrictions are an understandable response to these concerns but still go too far.
Under one proposed scenario, flavored milk would be available only to students in grades 9-12, though the agency is also considering a slightly different twist: extending access to grades 6-8.
Another alternative under consideration: allowing students of all ages to access fat-free or low-fat flavored milk, but limiting added sugars in the product — something that would require changes by milk producers.
This option is preferable to broad age restrictions. But it comes with questions. Would kids still drink this reformulated product?
That said, even cutting by half the added sugar in chocolate milk would still leave a product that's plenty sweet. For example, a one-cup serving of chocolate milk made by a Minnesota company has 26 grams of total sugars, 14 grams of which are added.
For perspective, 4.2 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon, according to Michigan State University. Do the math, and that's over six teaspoons in one serving. Even noting that milk has naturally occurring sugars, there's considerable room for improvement.
Ensuring and encouraging milk consumption is also good for the Minnesota economy, with dairy farmers part of the region's agricultural backbone.
The USDA is to be commended for ongoing efforts to strengthen school meals' nutrition. But broad chocolate milk age restrictions may do more harm than good by reducing milk consumption. Less sweeping reforms, such as reducing added sugar in chocolate milk, is a more balanced approach.