Chocolate milk might be federally mandated in New York City schools if Representative Elise Stefanik has her way.
Stefanik, a Republican who represents an upstate New York district replete with dairy farms, introduced a federal bill Monday to require school systems in the federal lunch program to offer students at least one flavored milk option at meals.
The Protecting School Milk Choices Act bill comes as a direct response to Mayor Eric Adams potentially banning the beverage from New York City schools.
“Our dairy farmers in Upstate New York and the North Country work hard to produce nutritious milk for our communities, and I am proud to introduce legislation to ensure a variety of milk choices for our school children. Instead of taking away milk choices from students, my bill will give them better access to essential dairy nutrients critical for their development. Let our New York students drink chocolate milk!” Stefanik said in a press release.
Stefanik did not respond to a request for comment. The bill was co-sponsored by Representatives Andrew Garbarino of Long Island, Chris Jacobs of western New York and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa. New York produced over 15 billion pounds of milk in 2020, making it the fourth highest-producing state in the country, according to national data.
New York City schools currently offer 1% low-fat milk, fat-free milk, and fat-free chocolate milk every day to students. The dairy purchases by the country’s largest school system are significant: In 2018, the city’s Department of Education spent $18.3 million on milk and yogurt, according to the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.
While he has not banned the beverage yet, “we are going to look at nutritional values in school food,” Adams said at a press conference last week. “The goal is to stop feeding the health care crisis.”
It’s not the first time the city has considered eliminating the drink from public schools. When former schools chancellor Richard Carranza reportedly explored a similar ban in 2019, Adams in his capacity as Brooklyn borough president released a short video called “Chocolate Milk: Do the Math” showing the high levels of sugar found in a carton of chocolate milk.
In the video, Adams poured a glass of murky brown liquid and measured out three spoonfuls of sugar to demonstrate the 11-17 grams of added sugar found in a cup of chocolate milk.
“Instead of serving our children beverages that set them up for a lifetime of health problems, we should be encouraging them to drink more water,” Adams said in the video.
A bipartisan group of Congressional representatives wrote a letter to Adams last week supporting chocolate milk as an essential way for kids to get nutrients: “Research finds that children who drink flavored milk consume more nutrients of concern like calcium, vitamin D, and potassium compared to non-flavored milk drinkers,” said the letter, which was signed by a number of New York politicians including Stefanik and Democratic Congresswoman Grace Meng of Queens.
The officials argued in the letter that eliminating chocolate milk in schools could drive down consumption of milk overall and increase food waste by kids who won’t want the unflavored kind. “Studies have also shown that flavored milk consumption is not associated with weight gain or even a higher total daily sugar intake in children,” the letter said.
A 2020 study published in the Preventing Chronic Disease journal found that eliminating flavored milk from the San Francisco school district did lead to some reduction of milk consumed by students, but did not affect their nutritional intake. “Removing chocolate milk modestly reduced student milk consumption without compromising average intake of key milk-related nutrients, and consumption of added sugars from milk declined significantly,” the study said.
The American Heart Association has recommended that children 2 to 18 years old limit their daily sugar intake to 25 grams or less. In 2017, President Donald Trump reversed an Obama-era order that restricted school systems to offer flavored milk in only non-fat versions. Bloomberg Businessweek described the reintroduction of flavored low-fat milk as “sweet for the $200 billion U.S. dairy industry, which has been in a self-declared crisis for years because of declining milk consumption.”
A physician provided by Adams’s staff said dairy in general was unnecessary for children and plenty of nutrients could be found in beans, leafy greens and soy milk.
“Given the obesity and diabetes epidemics we’re facing in the West, it seems completely irresponsible to be giving children sugar-flavored beverages,” said Dr. Josh Cullimore, director of preventive medicine for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He added, “There's absolutely no need for a child to drink cow's milk for nutrients that people have managed for thousands of years in different cultures (to get while) not drinking dairy products.”
A spokesperson for Adams said the mayor will review any new federal regulations if the bill does pass. “We will review the legislation if and when it comes to a vote,” said spokesperson Amaris Cockfield in a statement.