The opening line of reporter Rick Barrett's article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on record low levels of milk consumption in America says we should "blame it on bottled water or changing tastes."

In 2011, total U.S. beverage milk sales were 53 billion pounds – about 6 billion gallons – the lowest level since 1984, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures released in August.

Whole milk beverage sales in 2011 were less than half their level from the early 1980s, according to the Agriculture Department.

"We have known there's been a continuous decline in per-capita milk consumption for many years, going back even further than 1984," said Vivien Godfrey, CEO of the Milk Processor Education Program known for the "Got Milk?" and milk mustache advertising campaigns.

Shifting consumer habits and a flood of new beverages in the marketplace, including sports drinks and bottled teas, have taken a toll on beverage milk sales, Godfrey said.

While Americans consume about the same number of gallons of beverages as they did in the past, they're drinking a lot less milk.

Greater consumer choice–bottled water, fruit drinks, energy drinks, bottled teas–certainly explains part of milk's decline. But Barret fails to address another leading cause of reduced milk consumption in this country–particularly among children: Food nannies pressuring schools to remove higher-fat and flavored milk products from the school lunch program. In fact, according to the Washington Post, removing flavored milk from school lunches significantly reduces milk consumption among children.  

Nutritionists, meanwhile, have split between those who think chocolate milk is worth the payoff in nutrients and those who don’t.

“Trying to get students to consume calcium by drinking chocolate milk is like getting them to eat apples by serving them apple pie,” said Ann Cooper, a leading advocate for healthy school lunches.

The catch is that when schools remove flavored milk, students drink less milk. The milk processors’ group puts the number at 37 percent less milk overall.

Based on such statistics, the National Dairy Council has launched its Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk campaign. “Chocolate milk is the most popular milk choice in schools,” according to the campaign’s pitch, “and kids will drink less milk and get fewer nutrients if it’s taken away.”

Milk is critical to a growing child's body yet some activist groups want to see milk removed entirely from the school lunch program. In 2010, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, (in actuality, only 5 percent of this activist organization's members have medical degrees) petitioned the federal government to remove milk as a required food from the school lunch program calling milk an “ineffective placebo” and cited research that milk does not improve bone health and does not prevent bone fractures and injury in children and adults.

While milk's import to a child's health might be debatable, what isn't in question is the fact that milk is a very good beverage choice for a child. Unlike many other beverages on the market today, milk is not a nutritionally empty beverage.  The calcium, protein, vitamins and other nutrients are important for a growing body. 

It's too bad the food nannies have managed to take away a healthy drink choice for kids.