This past month, the USDA announced that it is mulling over a plan that would ban chocolate milk in public schools. It hasn’t passed yet, and news outlets report various possibilities: perhaps just in elementary and middle schools only. Or perhaps there will be a threshold of added sugar, so certain kinds of chocolate milk might pass the test.
I heard about this on a nutrition and health podcast, so their focus was really on whether chocolate milk is really that bad, nutritionally speaking. And also: does it serve the interests of developing healthy eating habits to demonize certain foods? I mean, why not also orange juice, or sugar-added yogurts, or for that matter, potato chips.
But it turns out that chocolate milk is a particular flash point.
Earlier this year, the Mayor of New York, Eric Adams made waves for suggesting New York City schools ban chocolate milk. His proposal was perhaps complicated by his personal status as a vegan, but according to Politico, schools in Washington and San Francisco have implemented this policy already. Los Angeles Unified School District banned chocolate milk in 2011 in order to give children healthier options, allowing only unflavored milk.
They reversed course six years later. What happened? Maybe this was a surprising outcome to lawmakers, but it was a no-brainer to this parent of actual live children: the kids threw out the milk they didn’t like.
In this story from the LA Times, which reports on LAUSD’s reversal five years later, there was this gem:
“Right now we are … taking garbage bags filled with milk to landfills, and that just doesn’t make any sense to me,” said board member Monica Ratliff.
You can lead the kids to unflavored milk, but you can’t make them drink it.
The way that school officials talk about proposals like this, you’d think that they were debating what children eat and drink, instead of what they have easy access to in a school cafeteria. I’m usually in favor of incremental progress and I’m the first one to say that when it comes to nutrition, small changes can really add up. But in a world where most kids in this country probably pass by a 7-11 on their way to and from school, in a world where most individually packaged milk is flavored, what makes them think that the regular world of taste buds doesn’t apply, simply because kids are in a government-sanctioned space?
Let’s take a pause here: is chocolate milk really that bad? Well, yes, it probably is, at least as far as added sugars are concerned. But it has some redeeming qualities as well. It’s going to stack up pretty well against most of the items in your typical vending machine, which are designed on purpose to be addictively delicious, nutritionally vacuous, and to resist decomposing.
And this isn’t at all irrelevant. Some current statistics on vending machines in schools in this country suggest that about 43% of elementary schools, 74% of middle schools, and 98% of high schools have vending machines. (The source is https://www.healthyyouvending.com/schools-vending-machines/ which is obviously trying to capitalize on the perceived harms of healthy food through a capitalist and not regulatory lens). Vending machines pay the schools to host them, and these decisions are outside the purview of the USDA even though, to my view, it is much lower hanging fruit, so to speak.
The USDA is a non-partisan agency, and the way they are considering this is about health and health policy. In other words, their question is about the added sugars inside chocolate milk, and the likely health consequences of those sugars. Secondarily, they perhaps might consider the consequences of their actions, as I have supposed they ought to do, evaluating what kids will do once they don’t have chocolate milk on the menu. But if we can get past those two considerations, there’s a lot to be said about the way that the political impulses on this might stack up, inside of a broader conversation about choice, liberty, and politics. It feels like a libertarian move to insist that the government not weigh in on what people want to drink. In this Politico article, Eric Adams, even as he looked to make this change in New York schools was quoted as recognizing the infringement :
“We’re having a conversation about: Should we have chocolate, high-sugar milk in our schools?” Adams said in January. “Now, I’m not going to become nanny mayor. But we do need to have our children have options.”
It feels like the choice of what to put inside one’s own body is pretty basic. Even though I’m not usually conservative, it’s tough to have a government telling you what is and is not eligible for consumption in a school. And it feels like a liberal move to try to move the needle with sweeping public policy declarations, to try to compute the number of excess calories and compare it to obesity rates and make the case for policy changes in the interest of the common good.
If I were a betting person and wanted to guess how this would all shake out, I’d probably just look at the political affiliations of all the people involved down the chain of decision making, and I’d predict pretty well how it’d come out based on people’s stated preferences for liberal, conservative, libertarian, Republican and Democratic affiliations.
But to line it up this way would be a little bit of grandstanding, and here’s how I know.
If you go back and re-read that paragraph above, and substitute “books” for “chocolate milk,” the political positions and all that justification magically flips.
Now it is the conservative position to protect children from things that might harm them, important for state actors to intervene and prevent them from injury. Now it’s the conservatives with sweeping concern for well-being that can be swayed with restrictive policies. And liberals go on wearing t-shirts proclaiming that good guys are never on the side of censorship, that unfettered access to absolutely everything a person might want to read is a crucial part of the freedom required to grow into a citizen.
To be clear: I’m not sanguine about banning books. I think it’s a mistake.
But I also think it makes the same stupid mistake as the school district which bans cookies under the delusional belief that kids won’t go home and eat the same exact food if they want it.
Banning books? Maybe that was a cute and effective strategy a hundred years ago when books were hard to come by. Any teenager with the internet isn’t going to fail to know about LGBTQ real people, leaving aside characters in a book. Any — and really, I mean, any— resourceful teenager is going to be able to get ahold of pornographic images that exceed any literary description in a school library book. I think the greater argument is about how little those school libraries matter. Would that the kids were banging down the doors asking for more books to read!
I’m not even going to point out that books are routinely sold in kindle format, lest someone tell me that the trouble is that those aren’t free the way that library books are. Back in the day, Napster managed to illegally circulate endless music for decades, because people wanted it. Which is to say, if the demand were high, illegal and free scans of banned books would be making their way around and we’d be having a different conversation about supporting artistic livelihoods instead of talking about possibly-problematic reading material.
Kids live in a world where if they don’t get sugar in the chocolate milk at school, they’ll get it somewhere else. And they’re going to get their information about juicy topics from elsewhere too, books included, if they want to read books.
There is an argument to be made that libraries are an important resource, that it should be easy for a person to read any book they want, particularly children exploring sensitive topics, and that is all true. We can even imagine much younger children, who would benefit from being exposed to ideas outside their normal routines and family conversations. That’s the ideal. Information, healthy food, representative fiction, adequate childcare— these are all valuable public resources that we should make easy to access, and free when we can. But in the actual world we live in, it’s worth remembering that grandstanding on moral high horses, while perhaps fun, doesn’t do much more than signal what our values are. It doesn’t really change the options available to our young people, for whom school (or public libraries) are only one piece of life.
We all want our schools to be wholesome places, where our children can be nourished in mind and body. We want them to be safe places, where kids place trust in their teachers, who help them develop critical thinking capacity that will serve them as adults. I think it would be more helpful if we thought of those schools as not special sanctioned spaces that need to act differently than the world, but as microcosms of our own world. They are practicums for handling life, and I trust that our children will learn to navigate them splendidly. Even— if they wish— by drinking chocolate milk and reading naughty books, and even— if they have to— finding those resources outside of school.