Why milk matters for children

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After the abrupt U-turn by David Cameron to scrap free milk in schools, Helen Crawley from the Guardian writes about why milk is so essential in childcare settings.

The image of milk as a wholesome drink for children, promoting growth and strong bones and teeth, remains rooted in our images of child health – which is largely why the idea of taking away free milk for under-fives was quickly vetoed by David Cameron. Milk is still recommended for young children, despite controversies over the fat and saturated fat content of whole milk and arguments over hormone contents, lactose intolerance, milk allergy and a range of other suggested health disadvantages.

In the UK in the pre-school years, milk is still a major provider of energy and nutrients: children under three obtain about a quarter of their energy and protein from the milk they drink, two-thirds of their intake of calcium, at least half of their intake of the B vitamins riboflavin and vitamin B12 and the mineral phosphorus, a third of their intake of vitamin A and significant amounts of folate and vitamin D.

It can be argued that these nutrients are available in other foods, and some may not be in short supply in the diets of many young children, but it is difficult to unpick the contribution that free milk for under-fives might play in their overall diet – not least for those children from households where other food and drink choices may not be optimum. As safety nets go, milk provided in childcare settings may well be one of the cheaper ones we can offer.

If we can’t say for sure how important subsidised milk might be in the diets of children who spend time in childcare settings, we can consider the impact of taking it away. Some will continue to serve milk and pay for it themselves, but there is at present limited advice to childcare settings on what, and how much, food and drink are needed by pre-school children.

This is something the current Advisory Panel on Food and Nutrition in Early Years hopes to correct when it offers its recommendations to the Department of Education later this year.

Current evidence suggests that many settings offer too little energy to children, possibly as a result of fears over rising obesity, but possibly to limit costs, and many smaller settings may replace milk with water (most health professionals recommend milk and water as the drinks that do not damage children’s teeth) adding to this dilemma.

Hungry children leaving childcare and returning home in a culture where milk is seen as “less important” are likely to be given fruit-based drinks, perceived and marketed as “healthy alternatives”, but these can damage teeth (with or without sugar in them), offer few other nutrients and will habituate children to sweet-tasting drinks. We already live in a culture where soft drinks dominate: it is sobering to remember that more than 80% of our young people drink sweetened soft drinks regularly, with average intakes among teenage boys somewhere around 138 litres a year – 60,000 empty calories and a lot of sugar-swilled teeth.

Messages encouraging young children to drink milk are about more than just whether milk matters to an individual’s nutritional intake or to whether children living in poorer circumstances can be proven to benefit from it: we need to think about what message taking the subsidy away might send in an environment where the high profit margin, heavily marketed alternatives are already pernicious enough.

What are you views on the whole saga surrounding the U-turn on free milk for children? Get involved in the debate by leaving your thoughts below!

Source: Guardian

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7 thoughts on “Why milk matters for children

  • September 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm
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    i am currently looking into this free milk at my son’s pre school as i am also the chair person i feel very strongly about how important this milk is to children’s health providing the much needed calcium. my issue i have is that my son has a milk allergy (swelling of the face when he consumes a small amount) and they do not provide free soya milk for him. I feel that this is very unfair and even discriminating as it is not by choice that he has to have soya. I don’t know if anybody has any more knowledge about this all they said was that soya is perscribed by the doctor which is rubbish we only got it free when he had formula which wasn’t soya which stopped when he was 1 and he could drink soya milk.

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    • September 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm
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      Hi Natalie

      I too am having the exact same problem. Causing massive arguement between me and the pre five teachers. I am searching and searching the internet and am none the wiser. Like your son, my son was born with a dairy allergy and although we have coped fine with it, the school where pre fives is are making it very difficult for me just now.

      Im at a loss of what to do 🙁

      Reply
  • August 20, 2010 at 10:55 am
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    As part of the reccomended diet for uner 5’s (Crawley, 2006) children are required to have a considerable amount of healthy fats in their diet of which can be gained from full fat milk. Milk also provides a portion of their daily protein as well as the required vitiamins A, B12 etc and essential minerals. All of whcih are needed for healthy growth and development. As the child ages their milk intake will generally decrease and can be relaced with a number of other foods (for example, fish, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, meat) that will spport them in maintaining a healthy balanced diet. Although some of these can be harmful, in moderation through a well educated approach to healthy eating, children can continue to be healthy. However, the influence that practitioners in settings can have on a families diet is limited. It is only their place to guide and advise as educators not health experts. Busy lifestyles today no doubt take precedence over out health and it happens before we even realise. Therefore to take away one way of supporting children from all backgrounds in recieving a healthy proportion of their daily nutritional requirments in the setting would limit our influence even more. We’re trying to make children’s lives better for the future not hinder them even more are we not?

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  • August 19, 2010 at 11:00 pm
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    I also agree that under fives receiving free milk in childcare settings is important. My reasons for agreeing to this is that it benefits the children in their development of teeth, bones and overall development. Also by providing it to settings frre of charge and definately agree with gving ll under fives so fruit each day as well xx

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  • August 19, 2010 at 4:49 pm
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    I agree that school milk is an important component of a pre-school child’s diet but the system for obtaining reimbursement is open to abuse. This is particularly true now that we no longer have to claim in arrears but claim for the number of children who may have milk if they turn up. The amount is probably a drop in the ocean but it irks me that nobody takes any notice. I had free school milk, lots of it, and I became fat as a result.
    After the war it was probably needed. It is is not universally needed now. “Free” school dinners are means tested (there’s no such thing as a free lunch). Why not target the benefit and give milk just to those who have free school dinners?
    Gill, and no doubt many others would like to see the children provided with a piece of fruit each day. Bananas make you fat and citrus fruit rots your teeth. Where do we stop? a nice steak each day to give them protein? Then we could go on to ban foods that are percieved to be bad for them. Then we could wrap them in cotton wool and keep them in a cupboard out of harms way.

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    • August 20, 2010 at 10:40 am
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      seems to me like you have some personnal issues here which are another matter altogether. I cannot believe that it was just the free bottle of school milk that has turned you into a ‘fat person’. Surly what we are trying to do as joint careers is encourage children to eat a healthy diet and try foods (ie fruit) that they may not sample at home – this is certainly the case at my setting where we provide fruit each day at our own cost and parents are surprised that their children eat various fruits which they would not eat at home.

      Reply
  • August 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm
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    I agree that it is important that pre-school children are encouraged to drink milk while in a care setting and with many other rising costs to groups it is important that this remains free. I also strongly think, as with children at primary school, it would be greatly benifical for all pre-school children to receive a free piece of fruit each day .

    Reply

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