A number 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 forbreakfast. 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.
When I 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 over time.
When the 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.
Research on 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.”
- Over-consumption of sugar has addictive affects on the brain.
- Sugar is one of the few foods that causes dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, to be released, which can cause addiction.
- It impairs memory and learning skills.
- It may contribute to depression and anxiety.
- It’s also a risk factor for age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
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 Americanssay 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.