of years ago, I took part in a video shoot in New York City with students living
in an at-risk community. Before the filming began, I was talking to the kids, and I asked them what they had for breakfast. They replied, “snack crack.” I said, “Huh?” They responded, “Snack crack, you know … the
adults get high by smoking crack, and we get our rush from eating and drinking
sugar.” That exchange has stuck with me
all of these years, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
became the Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley Unified School
District in California, and again when I became the Director of Food Services for Boulder
Valley School District in Colorado, I eliminated flavored milk. In both cases, there was
some initial pushback from the students and some parents, but it died down
pretty quickly. In both districts, participation in the lunch program increased
[Read: 5 Schools Changing the Future of Healthy School Lunches.]
Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in 2010, it addressed milk by stating
that schools needed to serve two kinds – fat-free and 1 percent – and that
flavored milk was allowed as long as it was fat-free. Additionally, unfettered access to water was
mandated during all meal periods, something that had previously been omitted
from school meals. As Congress prepares to reauthorize school lunch legislation
and other child nutrition programs, the bipartisan draft
bill would mandate a Department of Agriculture
study of “milk consumption data and trends for school-aged children” when determining what
varieties of milk should be available in school meals. This might sound
reasonable, but I believe it to be an effort by the powerful dairy lobby
to mandate higher consumption of milk in schools and to promote flavored milk
as a way to do so, which of course would add more sugar into school meals.
As I write,
I’m pondering a new decision for my school district: removing juice from school
meals and carbonated sparkling juice from ala carte sales. When I made the
flavored milk decision, it seemed like a no-brainer. But with this decision, I’ve
had to do more thinking and research into the issue. Here’s what I’ve found:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has
reported that 17 to 30 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or
obese. These children often suffer from illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2
diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea, as well as social stigmatism and
discrimination. I believe that most of us understand the health issues related
to the obesity and diabetes crisis, but what I’d like to unpack is how sugar
relates to this, especially in the context of children’s health.
[Read: School Food Lessons We Should Learn From Chipotle.]
how sugar affects children’s brains from trusted sources, including Dr.
Nicole Avena, Dr.
Robert Lustig and
the CDC, finds that sugar behaves a
little bit like a drug – harking back to the NYC kids calling it “snack crack.”
So we know
that too much sugar is a bad thing, but how do we decide whether or not to
eliminate flavored milk, fruit juice, carbonated fruit drinks and other high-sugar snacks, dessert and breakfast items from school meals and ala carte
sales? According to the American Heart Association
guidelines for sugar consumption, children ages 8 and younger
should consume no more than 3 to 4 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Older children and adolescents should not consume more than 5 to 8 teaspoons per day.
School breakfasts may contain as much as 10
teaspoons of sugar, which equals 39 grams – significantly higher than the recommended amount per day – and that’s just sugar consumption before 9 a.m. If a
child has a school breakfast that includes flavored milk, which often has 18 to
22 grams of sugar per 8 ounces, and a 4-ounce portion of orange juice, which
has 21 grams of sugar per 8 ounces, then the beverages alone may contain more
than 28 grams of sugar. That’s well over the daily-recommended amount.
In addition to breakfast, many schools
serve or sell flavored milk, juice and carbonated fruit juices during lunch. We
often vilify soda as the worst sugary beverage, and it’s certainly unhealthy at
26 grams of sugar per 8 ounces. But we need to look beyond soda – which, except
for diet soda, is no longer sold in schools – to reduce our children’s sugar
consumption. When we look at 8-ounce servings of these other beverages and
compare the sugar levels – 26 grams of sugar in soda, 21 grams in orange juice and 28 grams in carbonated fruit juice – it becomes apparent that they’re all
of the same ilk, and all need to be banned from schools.
[See: Dietary Guidelines Do-Over.]
I believe we’re at a crossroads with sugar
in schools. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
say that we should limit calories from added sugars and shift to healthier food
and beverage choices. To me, that means schools have to promote healthier
options by eliminating all flavored milk and juice from school meals,
eliminating the sale of juice and juice-based carbonated beverages from ala
carte, and promoting water and non-flavored milk.
We send our children to school to learn, and
they, in turn, take away valuable lessons not only from the classroom, but the
lunchroom. As school food professionals, adults, caregivers, educators and
advocates, we need to take a stand and remove sugary beverages in all of their
forms, as well as sugary snacks, treats and desserts from school meals. We
don’t condone drugs and alcohol in schools, so let’s banish the “snack crack,”
as well. The future health of our
children may well depend upon it.