Public health industry criticizes USDA move to bring back 1% flavored milk to school lunch program

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Since the Obama Administration eliminated low-fat flavored milk as a school meal option, milk consumption has declined, according to the USDA. Photo: USDA
Since the Obama Administration eliminated low-fat flavored milk as a school meal option, milk consumption has declined, according to the USDA. Photo: USDA

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US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has started the process of bringing back low-fat (1%) flavored milk to the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, which was eliminated from US school meal and a la carte programs in 2012.

However, some are critical of the move, saying it's simply a way to move more milk.

Since 2012 and under the Obama administration, most schools could only offer fat-free (including non-fat chocolate milk) and low-fat unflavored fluid milk in school meals to better align with USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

According to the USDA, school nutrition requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22bn in 2015.  While school meal program costs increased, most states reported a decrease in student participation in school lunches with about one million students choosing not to have a school-provided lunch each day. 

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” ​Perdue said in a statement.

“If kids aren't eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”

USDA will publish an interim rule to cover the regulatory changes needed to allow low-fat flavored milk in schools.  It is unclear when the change will be implemented.

Regressive move by the USDA, says AHA

Speaking out against the move, the American Heart Association CEO, Nancy Brown, said that the USDA loosening up nutritional requirements for school lunch programs to include 1% flavored milk could have serious health consequences.

“The USDA’s less rigid stance on school nutrition standards is a rollback masquerading as ‘flexibility’,” ​Brown said.

If current nutritional standards for school lunches are left in place, the AHA projects cases of childhood obesity will decrease by two million by 2025.

“We don’t understand why the USDA and some members of Congress want to fix something that clearly is not broken,”​ Brown said.

Other nutrition and public health experts view the latest change to the USDA school lunch and breakfast program as a way for the government to unload its oversupply of milk.

Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University believes that milk does not need to be a requirement for daily school meals and milk consumption should not be incentivized through added sugar and flavoring.

“I’m sorry for the problems faced by dairy farmers as a result of our hopeless agricultural policies but I do not believe that school meals are the way to solve them,”​ Nestle told DairyReporter.

“This looks like the result of dairy industry lobbying to me—it’s not about improving the health and nutritional status of school children; it’s about getting the government to buy more milk.”   

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A variety of school milks

Posted by Cary Frye, International Dairy Foods Association,

We learned that more than one million fewer school children drank milk with their lunches every day in the first two years after low-fat flavored milk was removed from cafeterias. When kids don’t drink milk, it’s difficult for them to get the proper amounts of calcium, potassium, Vitamin D and other nutrients that dairy foods supply. Offering children and teens a variety of milks like fat free and low-fat plain and flavored milk that they enjoy and want to consume is important for successful child nutrition programs in schools.

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any milk is better than no milk

Posted by Elisabeth,

when I was a kid I had fat free milk foisted off on me. I can't STAND fat free milk so I did what many other kids are doing: I didn't drink ANY milk at all. I spent my teenage years eating calcium pills rather than drinking fat free milk. Many kids will not be getting calcium supplements so any milk is better than none, and better than soda. I drink whole milk now, and No, I'm not overweight.

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