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Flavored milk, soda could be banned in Manatee schools

MANATEE — In an effort to curb childhood obesity, state education leaders are considering banning flavored milk and non-juice drinks in public schools — a move drawing mixed reaction from Manatee County School district leaders and parents.

The Florida Board of Education is considering amending its School Food Service Program to nix carbonated beverages, including sodas and chocolate and strawberry milks. The proposed change comes after the state Department of Education conducted a study and found that one-third of children are overweight in the U.S. and that obesity has more than tripled during the past 30 years.

Manatee school district nutrition leader Sandra Ford opposes the possible ban on flavored milk.

“It will be devastating to kids if they make us take away chocolate milk,” said Ford, district director of food and nutrition services. “It will probably make non-milk drinkers.”

Ford said the district already has plans to slash strawberry milk from its menu during the 2010-11 school year.

“We don’t have a lot of strawberry drinkers and it has a little higher sugar content,” she said.

But chocolate and white milk, she said, are close in sugar content.

“And of the 23 grams of sugar in one pint of chocolate milk, 12 of it is natural sugar,” Ford said.

And with a tight school budget, some are saying the changes could cost the district more. At 25 cents, chocolate milk is cheaper than white milk by a penny, Ford said.

“So if every child who buys chocolate milk switches to white milk, it would cost us about $60,000 more a year,” she said. “And there’s no additional funding for it.”

There is some indication the move would also hurt local dairy farmers including TG Lee, who supplies milk to the district.

“They are dependent on us buying milk, so if the consumption goes down, pretty soon they’ll lose money,” Ford said.

Abigail Watrobsky, 9, attends Wakeland Elementary and said she won’t mind if chocolate milk is taken off the menu.

“I like regular milk better and chocolate milk is not really healthy for you anyway,” the third-grader said.

But 11-year-old Owen Ragsdale, who also attends Wakeland, will be devastated if chocolate milk is no longer available at school, said his mother Diane Ragsdale. She said she knows children who don’t like white milk and will only drink flavored milk.

“If that’s the only way they’re going to drink it, they should leave it in schools,” Ragsdale said.

But she isn’t against state leaders banning non-juice drinks like soda.

“They shouldn’t have any of that junk, especially when I can’t be there to monitor what he eats,” she said.

Other parents, including Debra Woithe, welcome the idea.

“I do support it and that’s in spite of the fact I have good friends who I’ve heard say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s all my son will drink,’” said Woithe, whose 7-year-old son attends Rowlett Elementary. “But there are other sources of calcium and I think those parents can compensate at home with their kids. That would be better than children in schools having drinks with empty calories and artificial flavors as a part of their regular diet.”

On behalf of some concerned parents here, Ford took her concerns to the state Board of Education meeting last month.

“While most school nutrition professionals would agree there needs to be change, the current regulations do offer a nutritional standard that is based on science,” she told the board. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the School Nutrition Association are working as we speak to bring new standards forward and to bring our meal offerings into alignment with the Institute of Medicine research and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation beverage recommendations. All of their recommendations are based on scientific evidence, professional research and thought as to what is best for our students. Allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other nutrition professionals to set the guidelines for the nutritional components of our program.”

The state board is expected to bring the topic up for further discussion at a future board meeting. The next scheduled board meeting is June 16 in Orlando.