Producers have voluntarily reduced sugar content by 38 percent in chocolate and strawberry flavored milk that's sold in most of the state's schools, Florida's agriculture chief said Tuesday.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also told the State Board of Education that only low-fat and no-fat milk is offered in those schools.
"We can knock two or three cubes off your chart," Putnam said during his appearance before the panel at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale. "We did reduce the fat, the carbs and the sugar without a new rule."
Even with the reduction, though, each serving of flavored milk contains about four teaspoons of sugar.
The board had discussed possible restrictions on sugary drinks, including flavored milk, before the Legislature approved Putnam's request to transfer its authority over school nutrition to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The federally supported program provides more than 277 million meals a year to 1.6 million Florida children. Of those, 78 percent qualify for free or reduce-priced lunches.
Putnam also told the panel he has taken no action yet on soft drinks but that he expects the federal government to soon propose national rules.
School districts set their own policies for soft drink vending machines in middle and high schools. Most allow students to use the machines only after regular school hours, said Putnam spokesman Sterling Ivey.
Putnam said the reformulated flavored milk is sold in 67 of Florida's 75 school districts. The total includes 67 county districts and others for the Florida Virtual School, university laboratory schools and other specialized schools. It began with a small dairy that changed its formula at the request of the Sarasota County School District last year, Putnam said.
The commissioner did not mention the milk and soft drink issues until questioned by board member Roberto "Bobby" Martinez.
The Coral Gables lawyer had opposed moving the school nutrition program. He contended Putnam has a conflict of interest because his focus is promoting agriculture rather than looking out for children's best interest. The commissioner, though, insists he can do both.
The board's consideration of a sugar-limiting rule drew opposition from milk producers as well as some dietitians who were worried children simply would stop drinking milk if they no longer could get flavored varieties.
Board member John Padgett, a former school superintendent from Key West, led the charge for limiting sugar. Padgett told Putnam that many experts say the expected federal soft drink rule will be too weak and pointed out that some states have imposed stricter regulations.
"My view is that there is a way forward that involves offerings of 100 percent juices, waters, flavored waters," Putnam responded, noting schools rely on the vending machines as a revenue source. "There are options out there that are healthier."
Putnam, who has promised to make periodic reports to the board, said new federal nutrition guidelines being phased in over a three-year span will encourage menus geared to local harvests. That will give Florida, with its year-round growing seasons, a competitive advantage, he said.
"You're going to see an increase in the number of fruits and vegetables on that plate," Putnam said. "I'd rather eat our fresh strawberries, our fresh citrus, our fresh blueberries, all the things that are being grown here during the school-year months as opposed to the challenge that, frankly, other states are going to have."
Putnam also announced plans this fall for a new "Eat to Compete" program with professional sports teams to promote healthy eating.
One of the program's biggest challenges is feeding low-income children when school is out during the summer. The major issues are finding sites to distribute the meals such as YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, food banks and schools open for the summer and notifying children and their parents of those sites, Putnam said. Currently, only 14 percent of eligible children are participating, although the number of sites has been increased by 11 percent this year, he said.
He said the state now is partnering with United Way to notify people who call the private support network's 211 social service referral line.