Serving Milk in School Lunch Programs Debated as Obesity and Costs Rise

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Source: Amanda Mills,, Aug, 10, 2016

According to a 2017 study, serving water instead of milk with school lunches could prevent 570,000 American children from becoming obese and save $13.1 billion in medical and societal costs. The study found that, when children were given access to water dispensers in their school lunchrooms, the students’ consumption of water tripled while whole milk consumption decreased at lunchtime. The switch in beverage choice was associated with a “small but significant” decrease in overweight risk over a year.

Making a water dispenser available comes with a cost of $18 per student for that student’s entire K-12 experience, while there would be an estimated $192 societal cost benefit per child over the child’s lifetime, including reduced medical costs, productivity loss, and absenteeism.

Ruopeng An, PhD, a kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois and one of the study’s co-authors, stated, “The nutrition profile doesn’t change much when people increase their plain-water intake, but we do see a significant drop in their saturated fat and sugar intake. While there might potentially be some problems if children consume less whole milk, I would say those are probably minor in comparison with the costs associated with the skyrocketing rates of childhood overweight and obesity in the U.S.”

The research was published as schools continue to grapple with whether to serve flavored milk, such as chocolate and strawberry, with school lunches. In 2017 Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) brought fat-free chocolate milk back to school lunches after a six-year absence. When LAUSD schools serve flavored milk, milk consumption can increase an average of 4,332 gallons per week, or 12.5 million cartons of milk across the California district. One carton of chocolate milk has about 40% of the recommended daily allowance for sugar intake in a child’s diet.

Maria Fisk, a dietician and diabetes educator at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, stated, “Would you rather see the kids throwing the [unflavored] milk in the trash, not drinking it at all, not having that opportunity, which is what they were doing. Protein, calcium, vitamin D and if it comes with 2 teaspoons of extra sugar that can be considered and worked in” to the child’s diet.

Meanwhile, San Francisco schools have eliminated chocolate milk from elementary and middle schools, with plans to expand the ban to high schools in spring 2018, in an effort to reduce sugary drinks. School Board Member Matt Haney stated, “Just like many people, I have some nostalgia around drinking chocolate milk at lunch as a kid. But if this change helps reduce overall sugar intake and improves student nutrition and wellness, it seems like a positive thing to me.”


Daniel Allar, “Serving Water with School Lunches Could Curb Obesity, Save Billions,”, Nov. 7, 2017

Ruopeng An, Hong Xue, and Youfa Wang, “Projecting the Impact of a Nationwide School Plain Water Access Intervention on Childhood Obesity: A Cost-Benefit Analysis,” Pediatric Obesity, Sep. 22, 2017

Lori Corbin, “Chocolate Milk Back on LAUSD Menus Despite Some Parental Concerns,”, May 17, 2017

Sharita Forrest, “Study: Serving Water with School Lunches Could Prevent Child, Adult Obesity,”, Nov. 7, 2017

Jill Tucker, “Chocolate Milk Booted off the Menu at SF School Cafeterias,”, July 10, 2017