Could Chocolate Milk Sour Chula Vista’s Progress On Childhood Obesity?
Thursday, August 17, 2017
Photo by Megan Burks
Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS
It’s back to school for many San Diego County students this month. In Chula Vista, it’s also back to school for chocolate milk. The Chula Vista Elementary School District has lifted a 5-year-old ban on the beverage.
In 2010, the Chula Vista Elementary School District measured the height and weight of all of its students. What it found was alarming. By the sixth grade, more than half of its students were overweight. A quarter were obese.
The district mobilized, and in 2011 drafted a comprehensive wellness policy. No more cupcakes and pizza for birthdays, goodbye fundraisers like nacho and candy sales, and hello physical education. Chocolate milk even got the boot.
“Typically, when you have systemic change, it takes five to 10 years,” Superintendent Francisco Escobedo told KPBS that year. “We’re trying to accelerate that change because we’re talking about the lives of kids.”
Within two years, Escobedo would tout a 3 percent drop overall in the number of kids who were overweight. Today, four years later, things are looking even better.
At the district office, spokesman Anthony Millican pointed to a poster-sized map displayed in the hallway like a trophy. It represents six years of data. Swaths of red signifying high obesity rates fade to yellow.
“We see a great deal of health and wellness moving across our system so that by 2016, the last date of our BMI testing, we have no more red. The last school that was in red is no longer in red,” Millican said. “That’s a tremendous triumph.”
Obesity rates in the district have dropped 8 percent.
Chula Vista’s wellness policy has been held up as a national model, and it’s won awards and cash prizes for its work. So some were dismayed earlier this month when the board revised the policy.
Chocolate milk is back.
Board members said the chocolate milk ban resulted in too much waste — too many kids throwing away plain milk and all of its healthy nutrients. According to the district’s nutrition director, milk consumption had dropped 60 percent, from 25,000 servings a week during the 2011-2012 school year to 11,000 this July.
“For some kids, we know that this milk, whether it’s flavored or unflavored, might be the only healthy refreshment that they have throughout the day,” Millican said. “So it’s important that students get those needed nutrients.”
Shaila Serpas is a doctor with Scripps Health and helped implement the pilot for Chula Vista’s wellness initiative. She disagrees with the board’s decision and its rationale.
“Waste is another issue,” Dr. Serpas said. “We can have that conversation as a district, in terms of composting and recycling.”
And she said kids being turned off by plain milk is exactly why they shouldn’t be introduced to flavored milk in schools.
“In the early child setting, there’s no chocolate milk served — those are all plain milks,” Serpas said. “The children acquire a taste for plain milk, so something happens when they come to a higher level like an elementary school.”
Serpas and other critics of the change also worry about consistency.
The ban wasn’t a part of the original wellness policy. It came after students who had seen posters around down recommending they steer clear of sugary drinks pointed out the discrepancy at school.
“The kids were asking, ‘Well if you’re telling us zero sugary drinks, why are we getting chocolate milk?’” Serpas said. “At that time we removed it.”
The district effort was part of a citywide campaign to improve health. Students and residents were learning about the risks of sugar-sweetened drinks at city facilities such as parks, the YMCA and the San Ysidro Health Center. And it went beyond posters.
Yudmila Guicar and her 9-year-old son learned about nutrition through cooking classes. She said they inspired her McDonald’s-loving son to become a vegetarian at age five.
“I was not expecting something like that,” Guicar said. “He decided not to eat no more meat. And he wanted more vegetables, more fruit — not even with ranch. He would just eat them raw and healthier. And he would say, ‘I want this because me body needs this, because I need it and because I made a choice.’”
Guicar said she’s worried about chocolate milk coming back to schools because she wants to preserve the new culture around health in Chula Vista.
“Our schools, they need to support us,” she said. “If we are making changes, they need to support us.”
Sally Spero is the child nutrition director for the Lakeside Union School District. She said the extra calories and sugar — chocolate milk has about 7 calories more than regular 1 percent milk, and its sugar content is comparable to a half cup of peaches in syrup — isn’t enough to warrant the waste and lost nutritional opportunities.
“When parents ask me about the issue, I explain why we serve chocolate milk and encourage them to speak with their children about their family's goals for healthy eating and teach their child to act accordingly,” Spero said in an email. “Just try to understand that everyone does not see things the same way and serving chocolate milk and white milk both is a way to accommodate both viewpoints.”
Guicar said she knows her son will make the right choice when presented the option.
“He’s educated about it and he makes good decisions, but other kids, I’m not sure,” she said.
District spokesman Millican said if students don’t always make the healthier choice, other efforts should balance it out.
“It’s important to note that we still prohibit food like cupcakes to celebrate student birthdays. We still restrict the use of candy or food to be used as a reward or good behavior in the classroom,” he said. “So a number of components of our wellness policy are still in place.”
That includes BMI testing every two years. The next is scheduled for the fall of 2018. That’s a year’s-worth of data to help make the case for or against chocolate milk.
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