According to the USDA's blog (did you know they had one?), the new image "can help prioritize food choices by reminding us to make half of our plate fruits and vegetables and shows us the other important food groups for a well-balanced meal: whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat dairy."
I teach fifth grade students in a very low income neighborhood in NYC and their eating habits are shocking. It's pretty rare for them to come to school having eaten breakfast, even though all NYC schools provide breakfast. (I'm not sure if it's free in all schools, but it is free in our school.) And the breakfast looks pretty decent! There is always cereal and a small juice. There is always fruit and there is always a hot option of some kind. Instead, many of the kids do not eat or eat chips and colored sugar water for breakfast.
For the most part, I think the visual is much easier for kids to understand than the old image of slices out of a pyramid. Year after year I had to point out that slices were supposed to represent a portion of their diet. They just didn't get it.
While this image is more accessible to children, I wish we could move away from pushing milk as the only source of calcium in the world. Why is dairy in a little cup off to the side? Why can't dairy find its way melted over the protein, mixed into the grains or stirred in with fruit?
If you've seen Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution on ABC , you know that schools must offer milk in order to be reimbursed by the federal government. In many schools, chocolate (low fat) milk is offered along side low fat white milk, despite the fact that chocolate milk has added sugar. Some argue that if schools don't have chocolate milk, then the kids won't drink milk at all. Sounds like a threat, right? But it presents such a false choice. My students are SO excited when yogurt or string cheese are offered. Calcium also finds it's way into the meals. The kids love grilled cheese and ravioli. For kids that choose school lunch (we are a Title 1 school, so all kids get lunch at school), they can get at least one serving of calcium without drinking milk with added sugar.
Some people argue that the amount of added sugar and calories aren't so much that they contribute to obesity. But no one becomes overweight overnight. It's extra calories here and there. It's false choices and hidden calories that contribute to this nation's weight problem. I'm sure chocolate milk is fine in moderation, my big problem is that drinking it daily, and for some kids, twice daily, is not moderation at all. The additional sugar and flavor are empty calories that do add up.
My children are very young, but I have faced toddler temper tantrums over food. I firmly believe that it's my responsibility to offer the most nutritious meals possible....it's his responsibility to decide what he will eat. If he decides he doesn't want to eat his fruit, I'm not going to offer him strawberry ice cream.
I realize that a lot of my observations are based on my school in particular. Many of you probably make your kids' lunches each day or you look over the school menu, as I plan to do when my kids are school age. For your kids, who eat well balanced meals three times daily, chocolate milk might not be such a concern. This isn't the reality for my students. When they bring lunch to school, it's almost all snacks: bags of chips, packs of cookies, cereal bar or lunchables (shudder). I would LOVE to see my school eliminate chocolate milk except for once or twice a month. Maybe we could actually teach kids what moderation really means.