New School Cafeteria Regulations Cost $7 Billion, Cut Choices

Published August 11, 2011

Kids might notice some of their favorite menu items are missing when they return to school cafeterias this fall, as a new federal law and changing school regulations increasingly dictate what’s on their plates. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed in December 2010 as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, requires schools to limit fat, sodium, and cholesterol while offering more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. One of the most contentious cuts in some districts: flavored milk. 

Kids like it. But administrators at the Los Angeles Unified School District—the nation’s second-largest, with approximately 688,000 students—worry the high fructose corn syrup in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry-flavored milk is making kids fat.

Schools in the District of Columbia, Boulder Valley, Colorado, and Berkeley, California have also banned the flavored beverages, which dairy groups say make up 70 percent of all the milk kids drink. Federal regulations still allow fat-free chocolate milk and fat-free or 1 percent regular milk.

‘Good Intentions . . . Bad Consequences’
New York City, with the largest school district in the nation, allows fat-free chocolate milk, but its days may be numbered. The district aims to phase out all products containing high fructose corn syrup, said Marge Feinberg, spokeswoman for the NYC Department of Education. 

With one in three American kids packing extra pounds, changing school food is a politically popular move, but it has unintended costs.

“Good intentions can lead to bad consequences,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–CA) testified in May before the House Education and Workforce Committee. “The recent child nutrition law is one more in a series of burdens placed on states and schools already strained by a tough economy.” Weighty Costs to Schools, StatesThe new regulations will cost nearly $7 billion over the next five years, while a combined deficit of $144 billion currently weighs down 44 states and the District of Columbia. 

Kids will have to take three of five food items offered at breakfast and four of five at lunch, all meeting federal nutrition requirements, or schools won’t be reimbursed by the federal government. That means food kids don’t want will end up in the trash, observed Rachel Sheffield, an education research assistant at the Heritage Foundation.

Complying with the new law will cost schools an additional 25 cents per breakfast and 7 cents per lunch. To make up the difference for reduced-price and free-lunch meals, districts will have to charge more to parents who pay full price for their children’s meals. That constitutes a “tax hike on middle-class families,” Duncan said.

Without the option of flavored milk, kids don’t drink as much milk and thus miss essential nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, states the Dairy Council of California. An industry study found milk consumption decreased 35 percent when chocolate milk was banned from cafeterias. 

More Sugar in Juice
The dairy industry has a lot to lose if kids don’t drink milk, but other organizations agree flavored milks are more nutritious than no milk at all. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends low-fat flavored milks for children who won’t drink regular milk. 

“Adding a limited amount of sugars to foods that provide important nutrients—such as whole-grain cereal, flavored milk or yogurt—to improve their taste, especially for children, is a better use of added sugars than nutrient-poor, highly sweetened foods,” according to the American Heart Association.

LA Unified school board member Tamar Galatzan, who voted against the milk ban, told the Los Angeles Times the board is “demonizing milk,” noting the district serves juices that contain up to 29 grams of sugar, while eight ounces of fat-free chocolate milk contain 20 grams. 

Kids get up to half of their daily calories at school, says the website for the First Lady’s obesity-reduction initiative, Let’s Move. But schools can’t control what kids eat at home or how many hours they spend watching television instead of playing outside.

“It has to start with the family,” Sheffield said. “Whether or not a child is eating well, that’s going to come from … what guidance a child receives.”