By Catherine Gidney and Gabriela Tymowski-Gionet
Education Minister Brian Kenny’s decision to stop the sale of chocolate milk in New Brunswick schools has raised the ire of a provincial milk consumption lobby group, Milk2020, whose chairperson has characterized the move as “a stupid idea.”
Milk2020 unites producers and processors of milk and is supported through funding and administrative assistance by the New Brunswick Agriculture Department in its effort to promote the province’s dairy industry. It speaks for numerous businesses
that ensure a safe and sufficient supply of milk, support local farms and ensure local jobs.
Those interests often align with nutritional recommendations from the provincial and federal government. But let’s be clear: their aim in this instance is to promote the interests of the dairy industry, not the health of our children.
How did chocolate milk enter school cafeterias? When did this occur and how? Why is it offered? Who profits by it? Our historical understanding of New Brunswick educational policy, much of which underpins our contemporary situation, is sadly lacking, as is our knowledge regarding the origins of school lunch policies more broadly.
In other provinces, chocolate milk entered school districts in the late 1940s and early 1950s through an explicit campaign by the dairy industry to increase milk consumption. Industry representatives approached educational authorities district by district, offering chocolate milk as an option. The entry of chocolate milk into schools didn’t go unnoticed. Trustees in parts of Ontario and Quebec instituted bans on the grounds that it was less nutritious than white milk, given the sugar content.
In Toronto, debate raged for several years. Recognizing that chocolate milk was less nutritious than white milk, by 1949 that board had put in place a policy of selling chocolate milk for a higher price in order to discourage its consumption. In 1953, the
finance committee of that board passed an outright ban on the beverage, a motion delayed by the board as a whole after a presentation by the Canadian Dairy Industry Suppliers’ Association that emphasized the “hardship the move would have on the industry.” The board persevered, and, prioritizing children’s welfare, put the ban into effect later that year.
Recent research by health economist Phil Leonard makes clear that such bans may be successful in improving the health of our children, a serious concern given that New Brunswick continues to have one of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the country among both children and adults.
In the decades that followed, chocolate milk’s reputation underwent a revival, though this was primarily because it could be championed as a healthier alternative to soft drinks, which made their entry into schools in the 1970s and 1980s. The soft-drink invasion was representative of a widespread pattern in which various industries have gained entry into schools through persuasion, tempting financial offers to cash-strapped institutions, and the growing acceptance of fast-food culture.
In Alberta, both Calgary and Edmonton schools relented and allowed chocolate milk back in schools, albeit a lower sugar and fat version in Edmonton. The dairy industry worked hard with intense public-relations campaigns aimed at children – a morally problematic approach – and the school boards capitulated.
For New Brunswick, the ban on the sale of chocolate milk in schools is a good start but it doesn’t go far enough. Allowing fast-food franchises to provide hot-lunch programs undercuts classroom teachings about nutrition and healthy food practices.
Unwholesome cafeteria fare and fundraising activities equally reinforce a fast-food culture that’s deleterious to children’s health now and in their futures. Moreover, it teaches life-long lessons in poor food preparation and consumption practices that will be challenging to eradicate, and will almost certainly increase health-care costs.
The New Brunswick minister of education is encouraging school districts to continue revising and adjusting their food policies. The evidence from soft-drink exclusivity campaigns of the 1990s and first decade of this century – where individual schools and school districts signed contracts with vendors in return for monetary compensation – suggests that such methods leave too much power in the hands of industry, and too little in those of the schools themselves. Those opposed to such policies were often left ill-informed and powerless, as were the teachers, parents and children directly affected.
Only strong provincial evidence-based nutrition policies can ensure long-term protection against commercial influence in our schools.
The debate between the ministries of education and agriculture is a reminder that industry lobby groups mustn’t be allowed to set the agenda within departments of health or education. The health of our children must come first.
Catherine Gidney is an adjunct research professor of history at St. Thomas University.
Gabriela Tymowski-Gionet is an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.