A rush of small hands reached into the cafeteria cooler.
Brown carton. Brown carton. Brown carton. Pink carton.
On this day, 523 children filed through the lunch line at Pinellas Central Elementary in Pinellas Park and grabbed their milk carton of choice.
Sixty-five percent, or 343, picked brown: chocolate.
"I love chocolate!" exclaimed Mia McCue, 10, hugging her 8-ounce drink to her chest.
Another 107 chose pink: strawberry.
Left in the dust with only 51 drinkers (some took no milk) was the lonely blue carton, 1 percent plain white milk. With 12 grams of sugar, it is the only choice with less than half of the daily recommended allowance of sugar.
What kids decide here 180 days a year is the focus of a raging debate over childhood obesity, nutritional content and choice.
The state Board of Education is entertaining a policy that would end the sale of flavored milk in schools — a bold move by a state where 32 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are considered overweight.
Florida's milk farmers and school nutrition directors swarmed against the idea, saying if chocolate is removed, kids will give up on the calcium-rich beverage altogether.
John Padget, the board member from Key West, called for the change. "I'm not against milk at all," he said. "My concern is childhood health and nutrition."
It's still milk, opponents say
If we've learned anything from the National Dairy Council, it's milk's nutritional value.
Vitamins A, D and B-12, along with calcium, potassium, magnesium and protein top the list of important nutrients dairy offers.
Milk has been a part of the federally subsidized national school lunch program since its inception in the 1940s, but it's unclear when chocolate milk became a regular offering. Today, 54 percent of flavored milk sold in the United States is sold in schools.
Dale McClellan, part owner in the family-run M&B Products Inc. in Temple Terrace, said eliminating flavored milk fails to address other factors affecting health, like physical activity.
M&B provides milk to 13 school districts, and chocolate milk sales account for more than 75 percent of that business. Chocolate is an incentive, he said, to drink healthy.
"We can tell your kid here's your white milk, you need to drink it. But if it goes in the trash, what good does that do?"
Nationally, schools report most of the milk kids consume in their cafeterias is flavored — about 70 percent. Tampa Bay school districts log in similar numbers
"With the elimination of any other choices," argues Pinellas food services director Gray Miller, "it is most probable these students will choose a nonmilk beverage."
Some milk manufacturers have developed low-sugar flavored milk alternatives, but school nutritionists say artificial sweeteners bring their own set of complications. McClellan said the products simply taste bad.
Mia McCue, the chocolate-loving fourth-grader at Pinellas Central, said if chocolate milk were eliminated from her cafeteria, "I'd skip milk. I don't really like plain milk. It just has a weird flavor."
'No child has died for lack of chocolate milk'
Padget's effort is generating applause from national childhood obesity experts.
"Does anyone actually believe a child needs artificially flavored, sweetened milk to make it through the day?" Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, wrote to state board members. "If the only beverage available were water, the kids would be just fine."
Chef Ann Cooper, author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, is the "Renegade Lunch Lady" on her website, www.chefann.com.
In 2005, Cooper went to work for Berkeley, Calif., public schools and eliminated flavored milk. Kids have a choice between white milk and water. Period.
Cooper promised parents the potential health benefits would outlive the outcry. "Kids are kids," Cooper said. "The kids wanted their chocolate milk, and then a year later they stopped talking about it."
Last year, Cooper joined Boulder, Colo., schools as interim nutritional director and took the same tack: Goodbye brown cartons, hello organic milk.
"I guarantee you," she said, "no child in America has died for lack of chocolate milk."
Each side armed with statistics
As in any heated debate, each side comes armed with statistics bolstering its argument.
The Dairy Council of Florida points to a study of milk purchased in an affluent, suburban Connecticut town before and after chocolate milk was eliminated in 2008.
It showed that in a three-month period after flavored milk stopped being offered, overall milk purchases declined 67 percent in grades 3 to 8.
It's unclear what happened over a longer period, or whether students' diets improved or deteriorated after the change.
Kathryn Henderson, director of school initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, said longer term studies are needed.
"There is no evidence that children will stop drinking their milk when you remove flavored milks," she said.
Awaiting federal nutrition guidelines
After all the opposition, the Board of Education tabled the great chocolate milk debate. They await new federal guidelines on child nutrition.
But the discussion in Florida is far from over, Padgett said. "It's the trend of the future. It's the weight of the future."
At Pinellas Central, 10-year-old Hong Ho beamed when asked about her choice of white milk.
"Chocolate milk has, like, lots of fats and calories," she explained.
Friend and classmate Linh Le, also 10, shook her head as she sipped from her brown carton.
"I drink chocolate milk at school because I always drink plain milk in the morning," Linh said.
The two lifted their cartons to compare nutritional labels.
White milk: 110 calories, 12 grams of sugar. Chocolate milk: 150 calories, 26 grams of sugar.
"This has a lot of sugar!" Linh exclaimed.
"That," said Ho, "is why I don't drink chocolate milk."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8707.