School food service directors from the southeast to the northernmost parts of Alaska made the decision to serve only plain white milk during lunch and breakfast to cut back on the amount of sugar children drink during the school day.
In 2011, Carlee Johnson became the food service director at the Petersburg School District in Southeast Alaska. She learned that the children in Petersburg schools were offered chocolate milk every day of the week at school. Flavored milk was the most popular choice among the students, she said. Johnson started making changes to improve the availability of healthier food and drink options in Petersburg schools. Within months of her arrival at the district, Johnson’s food service program stopped ordering the chocolate milk.
“I completely took it out,” she said.
Geno Ceccarelli, food service coordinator, made the decision for the North Slope Borough School District when he started there five years ago. When he arrived, children could choose a chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk on Fridays. Ceccarelli said the flavored milk was high in sugar.
“So I eliminated it,” he said.
Johnson and Ceccarelli said some children and families were upset when the food service programs removed the chocolate milk from schools, but the food service directors explained the health reasons for making the change. When Petersburg students asked why they could no longer have chocolate milk, Johnson told them flavored milk is meant to be a treat offered only occasionally — “not like an everyday item.”
Both school districts participate in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, which provide low-cost or free meals to millions of eligible children nationwide during the school day. Participation in the program requires the schools to provide at least two options of milk for lunch, but those options do not need to include chocolate or flavored milk. The options can look like they do in North Slope and Petersburg, where they include two types of plain white milk: one low-fat and one fat-free.
Cutting out chocolate and flavored milk reduces added sugar served to children at school. An 8-ounce container of fat-free chocolate milk offered at school can have about 3 teaspoons of added sugar. The sugar that children drink plus the sugar that they eat can quickly take kids over the recommended daily limit of added sugar for the best health.
Added sugar wasn’t the only concern in the chocolate milk. Flavored milk also can have added salt, Johnson and Ceccarelli said. Added salt is something both are trying to reduce in the foods and drinks they serve to children in school.
Switching to only white milk was just one change Johnson and Ceccarelli made at their school districts to make meals healthier for children. Petersburg schools added salad bars and stopped serving some processed foods, like chicken nuggets. Ceccarelli cut the added sugar in foods by using pureed carrots, blueberries and applesauce as sweeteners. He switched white rice to brown rice and reduced added salt by switching to dried herbs to season foods.
“Trying to do better for the kids — that’s my goal,” he said. “Less sugar, less sodium, more flavors, whole grains.”
Ceccarelli and Johnson also encourage students to drink water, and both of their school districts have made water more available. Schools in Utqiaġvik, formerly called Barrow, supply pitchers of water for the children at lunch. Schools in North Slope villages often set out coolers of water, Ceccarelli said.
Water became more available in all Petersburg schools when the district replaced older water fountains with water bottle filling stations in the elementary, middle and high schools, as well as in the gym area. Then, district staff gave all students their own water bottles so they could drink water in class and throughout the day. The food service staff in Petersburg schools occasionally make water more appealing in the cafeteria, too, by providing sliced lemons or limes to flavor the water.
Strategies like these may work in other schools. Talk about these ideas with your school districts, PTAs, principals and wellness committees to see if they could work in your communities and schools. Read more online about other strategies schools across Alaska are using to make healthy foods, drinks and physical activity available to more children.